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By Alexandra Steigrad
Washingon — Can a Mormon win the White House? It’s a question on
the minds of many voters watching former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney
— not to mention Romney’s campaign itself.
But for the Romney camp, the more immediate question is whether
Romney can conquer the South, a region where evangelicals are not only
political kingmakers, but also deeply skeptical about the Mormon faith.
Romney’s first test comes in South Carolina, the veritable buckle of
the Bible Belt, which holds a Democratic primary on Jan. 29 and a
Republican primary on Feb. 2.
It’s a state that was pivotal to President Bush’s win in 2000, when
he appealed directly to Christian conservatives and Sen. John McCain
lost, in part by campaigning directly against them.
It’s also a barometer to gauge the mood of voters across the South,
and Romney knows it. He has made over 20 stops in the state since
February, and is “planning on spending a lot more time down there,”
according to Will Holley, Romney’s South Carolina communications
director.
Advisers say if Romney hopes to be a serious contender in the South,
he needs to appeal directly to conservative Christians, who make up
about one-quarter of the nation’s voters and about one-third of South
Carolina voters.
And while he needs to tackle the questions about his faith head-on,
political observers say Romney shouldn’t try to gloss over the
differences.
“Trying to sell Mormonism as an acceptable orthodox Christian faith
is a huge mistake. It’s not going to work with evangelicals,” said
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and
Religious Liberty Commission.
“Most southern voters want to know what the religious perspectives
of the candidates are, and it’s important to them. It’s not
determinative, but it’s important,” he said.
Regardless, Claire Austin, senior consultant for Romney’s Alabama
campaign, said she tells the former governor: “You talk to people, and
you relate to people and you let them know you believe in Jesus Christ
as your savior and that you have a very strong faith and moral compass.”
One of Romney’s biggest challenges may be overcoming the belief
among many conservative Christians that Mormons are not actually
Christians. For Ronnie Acker, the public affairs director for a regional
group of Mormon churches located near Birmingham, Ala., the answer is
obvious.
“A lot of people will say that we are not a Christian church, but
first you have to look at the name of the church: The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints. We use the King James Version of the Bible,
the Old and the New Testament.”
But not everyone agrees.
Many evangelicals, Land said, do not consider Mormonism to be a
conventional Christian faith. Evangelicals “do not believe that Mormon
teachings fall within the guidelines of the apostolic creeds, the
teachings concerning the Trinity, for instance,” he said.
If Romney tries to play up the Mormon-as-Christian angle, Land said,
Romney won’t buy any votes. Land advised that Romney would be better off
not addressing the Christian question, but instead focusing on his
social policies on abortion and same-sex marriage, for example, which
are in line with southern values.
“There is no issue that matters more to most evangelicals than the
issue of the life of the unborn,” said Land, who believes that Romney’s
anti-abortion stance is an asset — even if the former governor had at
one time declared himself as pro-abortion rights.
Based on polls released July 30 from the New Hampshire-based
American Research Group, Romney trailed other leading candidates, at 7
percent, in South Carolina. In Alabama, which holds a GOP primary (with
17 other states) on Feb. 5, Romney trailed other major candidates, at 12
percent, in a University of South Alabama/Mobile Register poll last
spring.
Meanwhile, the American Research Group poll shows Romney in a
neck-and-neck race with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in Iowa,
both with about 21 percent. The poll also shows Romney tied with
Giuliani (about 26 percent) in New Hampshire.
Aside from highlighting Romney’s record, Land urged Romney to tackle
the Mormon question like John F. Kennedy did when he was speaking about
his Catholicism during his successful presidential run in 1960.
Just as Kennedy assured Americans that he wasn’t the Catholic
candidate for president, but instead the Democratic candidate, Romney
needs to tell the nation he isn’t the Mormon candidate, but the
Republican candidate, Land said.
John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public
Life and an expert on religion and politics, said there still is a
chance that southern evangelical will vote for Romney.
“Romney faces a challenge in the South,” he said. “Whether he can
overcome it remains to be seen. It’s still very early.”
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of
this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written
permission.

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