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God-O-Meter

Although it was way overshadowed by the news that Sen. Barack Obama’s top vice presidential search aide had quit, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain spent yesterday campaigning in Massachusetts, the state’s former governor, Mitt Romney, at his side. Romney, of course, is not just any high-profile McCain supporter. Ever since he endorsed McCain (last Valentine’s Day, a week after ending his own presidential bid), the former governor has enjoyed the rarified status of being a bona fide member of the national pundits’ short list for possible McCain vice presidential picks. The Associated Press, reporting on the Boston event, focused (unsurprisingly) on money and political reality: the fundraiser took in $2 million for McCain’s campaign, while the Arizona Senator acknowledged that Massachusetts–lately rather friendly to Republicans as governors–tends solidly blue when it comes to presidential candidates.

But here’s an interesting tidbit: McCain praised Romney as “a wonderful family man” and singled out Romney’s wife Ann as “someone we have all grown to love.” Romney is a Mormon, a cradle member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches that families are truly forever. (The LDS marriage ceremony binds husband and wife “for time and eternity.”) The emphasis on families has long won Mormons admiration among social conservatives, a group Romney aggressively courted during his abbreviated campaign. But important theological differences (about God, Christ, the afterlife) distinguish Mormons from other Christians and have proven especially troublesome to many evangelical Protestants, a vital GOP constituency.

During his campaign, Romney faced an abiding question of whether he could persuade enough evangelicals to support him to become a viable Republican candidate. Now, the question is whether Romney carries enough credibility as a “family values” figure to help McCain as running mate? If McCain needed reminding of his weakness among social conservatives, he could have gotten it from another AP story yesterday, reporting on the start of the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. The Rev. Jack Graham, a former SBC president, was quoted saying Baptists lack “fire and passion” for McCain, “and for him to win, that fire has to be kindled.”

Could Romney light the blaze? Well, it may be worth taking a look at a survey published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last December, when both parties’ primary campaigns were in full swing. Back then, the general public perceived Romney as far more religious than any other major candidate–and even more religious than President George W. Bush. But the survey also reported that more than one-third of white evangelical Protestants voiced strong doubts about voting for a Mormon.

Let’s note that yesterday’s event in Massachusetts was by no means a one-shot pairing for the two men. Romney campaigned for McCain in Oregon last Saturday. And two days later, the Arizona Senator told Reuters news agency there was “nobody who represents me better today than Mitt Romney.”
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