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Associated Press
San Diego – The death of Mormon church President Gordon B. Hinckley renews attention on Mitt Romney’s little-known religion – yet rather than being reluctant to discuss it, he’s making a public embrace that shows some shifting political attitudes.
Two months ago, questions about Mormonism had grown so distracting that Romney went to the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas to outline his views about politics and religion in U.S. history and today’s society. Even then, he uttered the word “Mormon” only once during his speech.
Two months later, with some state wins behind him – and evangelicals less of a force in more populous states – the former Massachusetts governor has focused on the country’s ailing economy and his business background, which he argues makes him the most qualified to occupy the White House.
The death of Hinckley, and Romney’s decision to attend his funeral on Saturday, underscores his connection to and stature within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at a pivotal time for him: He is reaching out to conservatives for their support after a series of high-profile wins and endorsements have boosted rival John McCain’s campaign.
The difference now is that Romney approaches both his ongoing campaign and the funeral rites with less tension over his religion. Contests in Iowa and South Carolina, which both have significant evangelical voting blocs, are behind him.
The change was evident in the first public comments Romney made after learning of Hinckley’s death on Sunday at age 97.
On Monday in Florida, little more than an hour after Romney was told Hinckley had died, he expressed his admiration for his religion’s equivalent of the Pope. Romney also smiled at their personal interactions, and used his position as a prominent church member to pay tribute to the leader of his faith.
“We will miss him as a family, respect him as a man of great character and courage,” he said.
Then, Romney went deeper.
The candidate reflected on Hinckley’s efforts to expand church membership to about 13 million, to cultivate ties with mainstream reporters such as Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” and to bridge any gulf with government leaders.
Such acts, Romney said, “distinguish him as one of the great leaders in our faith, and his effort to reach out across the world and to faraway lands and to build temples for our church is something which will also give him a legacy which will last many, many years indeed, and we will miss his leadership.”
It was a personal moment, one of only a few seen so far from a candidate who favors a tightly controlled campaign operation, and who, while attending church most Sundays, always does so out of sight of his accompanying media entourage.
It also reflected the changing dynamic of the GOP campaign.
According to exit and entrance polls for The Associated Press and television networks, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s initial win in the Iowa caucuses was fueled by the 60 percent of GOP voters who called themselves born-again or evangelical Christians.
Many of them have been taught that Mormonism is a “cult” and not a Christian faith. They flocked to Huckabee, once a Southern Baptist minister.
Yet their dominance has dissipated.
In subsequent contests in New Hampshire, where Romney again finished second, and Michigan, where he won, the number of evangelical voters was far fewer, and Huckabee shared their support with his opponents. And while Huckabee did about as well in South Carolina as he’d done in Iowa with evangelicals, it wasn’t enough to overcome Huckabee’s weak performance with other voters.
Romney and his closest competitor for the nomination, Arizona Sen. John McCain, have both done better among non-evangelical voters than with evangelicals, and with those saying it is not important they share religious beliefs with their candidate than with those who say that is important.
Still, there are concerns about a Mormon president among some Republicans.
An AP-Yahoo News poll shows that Romney has had very little success gaining the support of Republicans who have long-standing reservations about the idea of voting for a Mormon candidate. That group of Republicans represents half the party, and Romney trails McCain and Huckabee by 20 points each with those voters. Romney has made some gains with the other half of the party who felt more comfortable with the idea of voting for a Mormon, and now leads McCain among them.
That is not to say Mormons have not been an active force behind Romney’s campaign.
Numerous church members are volunteering on his staff, busloads traveled from southern California and Utah to Nevada before the latter state’s caucuses, and their impact is expected to be especially important in the 21 GOP contests on Tuesday, when large Mormon populations go to vote in Arizona, California and Utah – all among the current top targets for Romney’s campaign.
Their strength in the West was evident in Romney’s Nevada win: He got 95 percent of the votes of Mormons, in a contest where they comprised 25 percent of the overall turnout.
Romney’s attendance at Hinckley’s service will give further exposure to their shared faith, but many of those who tune in may be surprised by how similar things look to funeral rites they’ve witnessed in their own faith.
The service will be held not in a ward house, but at the church’s Conference Center in Salt Lake City. The venue was chosen for its ability to handle a crowd expected to number 21,000, just as St. Peter’s Square would accommodate the overflow crowd for a papal service.
Hinckley will be buried in traditional all-white Mormon funeral clothes, but the rest of the service will be conducted by officials dressed in the same business suits seen on Easter or Christmas in Christian houses of worship.
And there will be eulogy-like tributes from family members and friends, as well as singing.
The music will be performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir – the church symbol that to date has been the most recognized and embraced by outsiders.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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