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PRINCETON, N.J. - While Mitt Romney glad-handed his way through the backroads of New Hampshire on Saturday, a series of scholars launched into a debate of how the presidential candidate's Mormon faith will hamper or help is bid.
Romney's run for the White House puts Mormons at an "enormous risk," one religious professor warned at the forum at Princeton University, noting that if voters reject him, his faith may be blamed as the reason.
A journalist forecast an undercurrent campaign to come attacking Romney's faith, while another suggested Americans may be more comfortable with Romney if he explained his religion in some manner.
The former Massachusetts governor may have the best chance of any member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of obtaining the presidency, but his faith - viewed as a cult by some Protestant evangelicals - is seen as a hurdle in his bid.
Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor who studies religion and government, said Romney is the strongest and most qualified candidate, "the perfect candidate for this moment in time" compared to his rivals. But he still may not win the GOP nomination.
"If he can't win in the primaries, it will be said, and leave it to demographers to say if it's true or not . . . it will be said it's because of his Mormonism," Feldman said.
That's why, he added, Mormons are in a precarious spot because Romney could lead the Mormons more into mainstream acceptance or show that bias against Mormons still is a glass ceiling.
"You darn well better open your checkbook," Feldman suggested to Mormons. "You're along for the ride whether you want to be or not."
Jan Shipps, a noted historian of Mormonism, said afterward that Feldman is "absolutely right."
"It's a great risk," Shipps said. "Either it will more mainstream the Mormons or it will make them appear more weird."
Of course, how Romney fares in the primary contest may depend on how much his religion plays a part of the race. Already, anonymous fliers blasting the faith have circulated and uncounted e-mails have been forwarded, cautioning against voting for a Mormon.
Amy Sullivan, the nation editor for Time magazine, referenced a few of those kind of attacks popping up in South Carolina, a key primary state, and said there would be more.
"There are always whispering campaigns that take place," Sullivan said, noting the undercurrent campaign against Sen. John McCain in 2000, alleging he had an illegitimate black child. The senator, instead, had actually adopted a daughter from Bangladesh.
"There's precedent for this in politics," Sullivan said.
But Romney's faith also could boost his bid, argued David Campbell, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. Mormons as a whole are conservative, active and cohesive, he said, essentially dry kindling awaiting a light to mobilize.
"Is Mitt Romney the match that will ignite" the Mormon faithful, he asked. If so, he says, the effort will begin at the bottom - from followers, not leaders.
Some of that effort may be visible in Romney's ability to raise money from Utah and other Western states that have large populations of Mormons. The Beehive State remains Romney's second-largest state for fund-raising.
Several panelists at the forum - sponsored by Princeton's Center for the Study of Religion - talked about Romney's need to give a speech addressing his faith, similar to that of President Kennedy's famous 1960 speech that helped assuage concerns about his Catholicism.
Romney himself told a group of new Hampshire voters on Saturday that his advisers have warned him against giving a speech specifically about his faith, but he didn't rule it out.
"I'm happy to answer any questions people have about my faith and do so pretty regularly," Romney said, according to The Associated Press. "Is there going to be a special speech? Perhaps, at some point. I sort of like the idea myself. The political advisers tell me no, no, no - it's not a good idea. It draws too much attention to that issue alone."
Nevertheless, lines from the Kennedy speech peppered the panelists' lectures at Princeton.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Kennedy was the only one who could help Americans overcome fears of voting for a Catholic and Romney is the only one who can "close the deal" for Mormons.
"I have confidence Mitt Romney can pull that off," Land said.
Mark Silk, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life at Harvard's Trinity College, said that Romney already has addressed many of the same issues Kennedy did in his 1960 speech. But, he said, Romney still needs to challenge the anti-Mormon rhetoric.
"Most Americans would like to see such moxie like that," Silk said.