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Posted: 4:20 PM- WASHINGTON - The New Hampshire attorney general has launched a preliminary inquiry into anonymous survey calls being made to voters in the early primary state that raise critical questions about Mitt Romney's Mormon faith.
The calls, first reported by The Associated Press, ask voters whether they know Romney is a Mormon, that he received a draft deferment from Vietnam to serve a mission, that Mormons didn't allow blacks to hold the priesthood until the 1970s and that the LDS Church view the Book of Mormon as superior to the Bible.
News reports say the calls also raised the issue of a Mormon Temple ceremony known as baptisms for the dead and defining the LDS Church as a cult and whether that would make a voter less likely to vote for Romney.
Rose Kramer, a Romney supporter in Dubuque, Iowa, received a call on Tuesday evening that she said made her "very upset."
"After phone call, I told my husband I was infuriated," Kramer said. "I don't know where it's coming from but it's just not called for at all. I just don't like it at all."
Marshan Roth, of Fairfield, Iowa, got a call on Wednesday night. It started out like a regular poll, she says, but then asked positive questions about McCain and delved into disparaging things about Romney. She was asked whether she knew that Mormons have "baptized thousands of dead people" and that the Book of Mormon was more important than the Bible to Mormons.
"It was sick. It really was. It made me just furious," says Roth, who is leaning toward backing Romney. "If you didn't know enough about McCain, you'd think he was the white knight coming in on his charger saving the world and that Mitt Romney was tantamount to the devil."
The calls - some of which were reportedly made by a Utah-based company to voters in New Hampshire and also in Iowa - make positive statements about Sen. John McCain, though his campaign said Friday it has nothing to do with the surveys.
"I am outraged by the cowardly telephone calls that hide behind my name in an effort to disparage one candidate and advance the candidacy of another," McCain said in a statement. "I was a target of these same tactics in South Carolina in 2000 and believe the American people deserve better from those who seek the high office of the presidency."
The Arizona Republican is referring to a whisper campaign in the 2000 race blasting him for having an illegitimate black child. In actuality, McCain had adopted a daughter from Bangladesh. McCain on Friday also asked for an investigation.
Romney's White House bid has faced attacks on his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a faith viewed with hesitancy by a section of voters who don't believe the church to be Christian faith. Some evangelical organizations have referred to the church as a cult.
Romney's campaign was quick to complain about the anonymous poll.
"Whichever campaign is engaging in this type of awful religious bigotry as a line of political attack, it is repulsive and, to put it bluntly, un-American," Matt Rhoades, Romney's communications director, said in a statement.
"There is no excuse for these attacks. Gov. Romney is campaigning as an optimist who wants to lead the nation. These attacks are just the opposite. They are ugly and divisive."
New Hampshire Deputy Attorney General Orville "Bud" Fitch said Friday afternoon that his office is looking into whether any state laws were violated with the poll, though a formal investigation has not been opened.
"At this point trying to make contact with those who received the calls to hear based on their recollection, whether question posed qualify as a push poll," Fitch said.
New Hampshire law defines a push poll as a phone call on behalf of, in support of or against a candidate where the caller asks questions about a candidate implying or conveying information about that person while under the guise of gathering polling information.
The AP reported that the calls are coming from Western Wats, an Orem-based company that declined to say whether it was involved in any surveys in Iowa or New Hampshire.
Robert Maccabee, director of client service at the company, says the survey firm does not engage in push polling, a tactic that usually involves thousands of calls to potential voters with a disparaging message about a candidate or issue.
While not speaking specifically about these calls, Maccabee says pollsters often use "message testing" calls, similar to the ones being made in Iowa and New Hampshire, that ask voters how they feel about a candidate or issue once they know a bit of information, positive or negative. That's not push polling, he said.
"Typically, they're trying to sway someone's opinion or vote on a particular issue or candidate," he said. "Western Wats does not do that kind of polling."
Presidential candidate Fred Thompson also disavowed the calls.
"There is no room for this kind of smut in a Republican primary election," said Thompson communications director Todd Harris. "This kind of robo-dial bigotry which tears down Republicans today will only serve to prop up Democrats tomorrow. It has to end and end now."
Former Rep. Chuck Douglas, a New Hampshire Republican and McCain supporter, invited other presidential campaigns to sign on to a formal complaint letter requesting an investigation.
"These tactics are repugnant and despicable and there is no place in New Hampshire politics for push polling or any other negative tactics that engage in personal attacks," Douglas said. "It is especially shameful that those responsible would hide behind a push poll to impugn a candidate's faith."