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Will Mitt Romney's 'Mormon moment' help his campaign?

When a Dallas pastor called Mr. Romney’s faith – Mormonism – a 'cult' at a recent convention of Christian conservatives, he brought into the open the role of religion in the primaries.

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“I don’t know if this was a favor to Romney, but it’s probably better from the point of view of any campaign to have criticism like this come out early rather than last minute,” says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio.

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When the controversial Mr. Huckabee quote about Mormons came out in the last campaign, it was just a few weeks before the first nominating contest, the Iowa caucuses, which the former Arkansas governor went on to win. But, the dynamic of this cycle is wholly different. Republicans are passionate about defeating President Obama and getting the economy on track, so a candidate’s electability and conservative economic credentials are essential – not his or her religious faith.

In addition, there’s no Huckabee in the mix – that is, no obvious choice for the Christian conservative voters who dominate in Iowa and in the early South Carolina primary. More generally, Republican voters who flat-out oppose Romney or are still shopping for a candidate have not coalesced around any of the alternatives.

Yet in a fundamental way, religion always matters in presidential politics. A July poll by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 56 percent of the public says it is important for a presidential candidate to have “strong religious beliefs, regardless of whether those beliefs are the same as yours.” Thus, it comes as no surprise that there’s so much interest in candidates’ faith.

“We’re only in October, and already faith in public life has been a significant part of this campaign,” says Tim Goeglein, author of “The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era.”

Perry held a Christian faith rally a week before declaring a run for president. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s brand of Christian conservatism was the focus of a lengthy New Yorker profile. And businessman Herman Cain is a Baptist minister.

If any of them, or someone else, emerges as the alternative to Romney, expect more scrutiny of their beliefs. Despite a recent surge by Mr. Cain, Romney still leads in most polls. If he continues to raise large sums of money, and sail through the debates unscathed, he’s the man under the microscope.

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