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Filmmaker Mitch Davis' strategy to bolster Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's expected candidacy for president could backfire.
Davis, the director of "The Other Side of Heaven," has created a political organization under a federal law known as 527 to confront and, he hopes, dispel many American voters' reluctance to vote for a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - Romney in particular. Then, he plans to make a $1 million documentary about the issue, following Romney along the campaign trail.
The Washington-Holly- wood dual track is meant to eradicate latent religious bigotry still lingering in American society.
But it could just as easily come across as parochial and defensive. Davis' campaign - which he acknowledges likely will start with donations from sympathetic Utahns - could end up helping Romney make his religion a non-issue or end up reinforcing the cultish image many Americans have of the faith.
"The last thing Mitt Romney wants to be is the Mormon candidate," says Davis. "But inevitably, the issue has to be addressed. And it's beneath Mitt Romney to do the heavy lifting on this."
Davis was in Salt Lake City this week to announce the creation of RunMittRun.org and meet with potential donors.
A spokesman from Romney's office did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday. Campaign rules prohibit any cooperation between 527 organizations and candidates. But Davis says Romney is aware of his efforts.
A lifelong Mormon and graduate of Brigham Young University and the University of Southern California, Davis is best known for making a movie in 2001 about LDS Church apostle John Groberg's religious mission in Tonga.
Fresh off his latest project, a political thriller set in Israel, Davis said he became aware of the chatter about Romney's much-predicted candidacy. Pundits tout Romney as the great hope of the Republican Party. But, Davis says, there's always a "but," a caveat: He's Mormon. The California-based director decided to take on the phrase and the sentiment behind it. It's not far from what Davis did five years ago with "The Other Side of Heaven," Davis says - "putting a human face on Mormons."
He says most Americans don't know enough about Mormons to make an informed opinion of an LDS presidential candidate. He points to a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll that found 37 percent of 1,300 respondents said they wouldn't vote for a Mormon. Those numbers grew in different religious and ethnic groups. Davis says pollsters don't even think of asking the same question substituting "woman" or "Jewish" or "African American." Although President Kennedy managed to unravel anti-Catholic sentiment 40 years ago, religious bigotry still exists in politics, Davis argues.
He hired California pollster Gary Lawrence, also a Mormon, for his own assessment of attitudes toward Mormons in South Carolina. That state's presidential primary will be a key test of the religious issue and Romney's ability to overcome it. In a telephone poll of 600 registered voters July 6 through 10, Lawrence Research found that 44 percent of that state's voters believe Mormons still practice polygamy and 27 percent believe the faithful worship church founder and prophet Joseph Smith.
"If I believed what most Americans do about Mormons, I couldn't vote for a Mormon either," Davis said.
So he launched a political committee and a film project simultaneously. He compares the nexus of the 527 and filmmaking to the linkage of liberal director Michael Moore, his documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" and MoveOn.org. But, Davis says, the results of this partnership will be gentler.
To counter what he considers benign bigotry, Davis will use the money raised by the 527 to pay for "hip, funny and smart" - and gentle - radio and television ads. One possible script includes football coaches talkingr: "Could a Mormon be a quarterback?" Steve Young could be sitting on the bench in the background. Davis is trying to recruit several Mormon celebrities for the ads, including Young and R&B singer Gladys Knight.