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Politics profs: Romney’s faith could play important role in GOP nomination
Perceived national frontrunner Mitt Romney‘s religion could yet play an important role in whether he wins the GOP presidential nomination and defeats President Obama, political observers say.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and a 2008 candidate for president, is a Mormon. There are about 15 million Mormons in the world, and about 6 million in the United States. It was founded in the 1820′s by Joseph Smith.
The issue came to the forefront earlier this month when Robert Jeffress – senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and an endorser of Texas Gov. Rick Perry – referred to Mormonism as a cult.
Steffen Schmidt, a politics professor at Iowa State University, said the nomination is Romney’s to lose but his religion will come under attack again.
“My own personal feeling is that things are going to get very brutal in the next month or two, and that Mormonism is going to be discussed even more, probably not directly in connection to him but there are already people talking about Mormonism and what it is, is it Christian or not?” Schmidt said.
“I think the general conclusion will be that it is not Christian, that it is significantly different and there are some things in it people are talking about that are frankly sort of disturbing and not appealing.”
Perry, also a presidential candidate, has said he doesn’t agree with Jeffress’s remarks. But he seemed to make a couple veiled digs on Romney’s religion and stances on social issues during a social conservative banquet Oct. 22 in Des Moines.
“It is really important for all the candidates to come and ask all of you for your votes and your support,” Perry said at the beginning of his comments.
And Perry later said his stance against abortion is “not a matter of campaign convenience, it is a core conviction.”
“It is a liberal canard to say I am personally pro-life but government should stay out of that decision,” he said. “If that is your view you are not pro-life, you are pro-having your cake and eating it too.”
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) also seemed to take a jab at Romney at the event, saying people have decided Obama won’t have a second term and Republicans don’t have to settle on a moderate candidate.
“This is the year when social conservatives can have at all,” she said. “Because from my experience a social conservative is a fiscal conservative. A social conservative is a national security conservative. We can have it all this year.”Drake University politics professor Dennis Goldford said he’d be surprised if any candidate says the sorts of things Jeffress did, but agreed Romney’s religion could hurt him in a close race for the nomination.
“I think according to all polls on the matter, there’s a certain segment of the population who just are not comfortable with Mormonism and may have difficulty,” Goldford said. “His Mormon faith tradition may be a relatively minor factor overall but in a tight race of any sort minor factors make a difference.”
But Goldford thinks some of the “grumbling” he sees in the Republican Party over Romney has nothing to do with his religion, but that he’s not conservative enough.
“A substantial part of the party believes he doesn’t have a constant view or they believe those constant views are not conservative,” he said. “Either way that doesn’t help him.”
Faith was a topic during the Oct. 18 GOP debate, where it appeared candidates weren’t ready to challenge Romney’s religious views outright. But former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, a Catholic, said a person’s faith is an important aspect of a candidate.
“And those are legitimate things for voters to look at…as to what the tenets and teachings of that faith are with respect to how you live your life and how you would govern this country,” he said.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said faith matters because it affects a candidate’s judgments, but “who you pray to, how you pray, how you come close to God is between you and God.”
Romney said during the debate what bothered him most about Jeffress’s comments is the idea that a person’s faith matters more than his morals, and people should choose public office holders based on their religion.
Goldford said the dynamic in the GOP presidential field seems to be between either Romney or one of a group of “potential anti-Romneys,” and said his problems in the party are independent of his religious background. But if he is the nominee, the party could lose out on some votes because of his faith.
“It’s not as though people who don’t like him are going to vote for Obama. I just don’t think they would vote,” Goldford said. “How large a group is that? It’s hard to say. Republicans are like the high school girl waiting for a prom date and Romney’s asked her and she’s not quite thinking he’s the one they want to go with.”
Schmidt said the GOP nomination process has been strange for that same reason, and agreed Republicans could lose some votes if he’s the nominee.
“I’m not sure that tea party activists and others will swing behind him, frankly,” he said.