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WASHINGTON - The day after it was clear the Democrats would rule the U.S. Senate, President Bush invited its top two leaders to the White House for conversation and coffee.

It's a good bet that Sen. Harry Reid didn't partake of the latter. The Nevada Democrat, a faithful Mormon, won't touch coffee, tea or alcohol.

"He doesn't even drink soda. I'm sure it was orange juice" Reid sipped during the presidential chat, joked Tessa Hafen, Reid's former spokeswoman.

It's a small but important detail to note for Reid, who was elected last week to lead the Senate when Democrats take over in January. He'll assume the role of majority leader and take his place in history as the highest-ranking elected Mormon in U.S. history.

Observers say that shows that Mormonism, long a religion seen outside Utah as peculiar, is becoming more mainstream.

"It's an important symbol," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "That has always been a mark of religious groups in American society, that in some important sense the group has become part of the mainstream."

Mormons already hold several key positions in Washington. Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt is secretary of Health and Human Services; two federal departments have Mormon chiefs of staff; and five senators and about a dozen representatives are Latter-day Saints.

But Reid has gone further than any of them.

Born in a small mining town in Nevada, Reid now attends services at a wardhouse a block outside the District of Columbia every Sunday he is in town. He always finishes his home teaching - where members check on a few families to ensure they're well - and once taught a gospel doctrine class. There's a copy of the Book of Mormon on his office bookshelf.

"He's always looking after other people," says his bishop, Michael Seay, the lay leader of his ward. "He's very much loved by the members."

And while he doesn't push issues simply because of his faith, friends say Reid's religion and his stands as a senator are inseparable. Reid, the father of five boys, is anti-abortion, pro-death penalty and opposes same-sex marriage and gun control. But he's no Republican-lite; he takes liberal-to-moderate stands on issues such as education.

"His faith clearly affects who he is," says Kai Anderson, Reid's former deputy chief of staff. "It's a big part of what makes him a decent, kind, loving man. But he doesn't legislate it."

Unlike many other Mormon politicians, Reid is not often identified by his religion. Many news outlets across the country noted his faith only after he was elected majority leader. It does not appear to be an issue in the Senate.

"It's a historical milestone that I'm sure LDS scholars will note," says Sen. Bob Bennett, a Mormon Republican from Utah. "Interestingly, in the Senate no one seems to care."

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., wasn't aware that Reid would be the highest-ranking elected Mormon, and it didn't seem to matter to him.

"Religion is not a factor," Obama says. "Obviously, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have risen to the heights in business and government - look at Orrin Hatch, for example - so, in some ways, it's not considered particularly newsworthy."

Same for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who noted that Reid is a Mormon, Majority Whip-elect Richard Durbin is a Catholic and Charles Schumer, head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, is Jewish.

"Religion is becoming less and less significant in everybody's mind," Leahy says. "I have never ever once heard anybody - in Harry's presence or not - mention anything about his religion."

More important to the Democrats, with their narrow majority, is Reid's propensity for negotiation and compromise.

While he'll throw bombs when necessary, "One thing about him is he is balanced, prudent and very easy to work with," says William Nixon, a Washington lobbyist, former Hill staffer and an LDS stake president.

"He is the example that the Democratic Party is not going to allow itself to be co-opted by the far left."

Bridging the liberal and moderate wings of Senate Democrats will not be easy, but Nixon says, "The fact they would elect him as a leader speaks volumes about his integrity."

While friends and associates of Reid praised him as above the corruption that has plagued Washington in the past few years, Reid has been under increased scrutiny for his financial dealings.

The Associated Press reported last month that Reid made $1.1 million from the sale of a parcel that he had not personally owned for three years. Reid later redid his financial disclosure to note the transfer of the property and the sale.

The Los Angeles Times has reported on Reid's son and son-in-law lobbying his office on a land deal in which the son and son-in-law reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees. And the Times also recently explored an $18 million appropriation for a bridge that some say will increase the value of his nearby landholdings.

That said, most of the coverage of Reid has been positive.

One side note in his ascension is that it could end up helping Republican Mitt Romney, who is expected to run for president. Several pundits have warned that Romney's Mormonism could be his biggest hindrance, but if the public becomes accustomed to Mormons in high office, the going might be easier.

"Harry Reid's LDS affiliation will be a net plus for Mitt Romney, clearly demonstrating to moderates and independents Mormons can be active in the church and be a leader of great consequence," Nixon says.

Overall, the Pew Forum's Green says the United States has made broad progress on religious tolerance. Keith Ellison, of Minnesota, just became the first Muslim elected to Congress; he'll serve in the U.S. House.

"Not to get too teary-eyed about this, but part of what America has been about is living up to its ideals," Green says. "We started out with idea that all faiths should be treated with respect. Certainly we're not perfect yet, but there's been a better acceptance of other faiths."


* Tribune reporter PEGGY FLETCHER STACK

contributed to this story.