Mitt Romney's Mormon dilemma: To reach voters, should he discuss his faith?
Mitt Romney trails President Obama in polls on likability, and Republican strategists say his campaign is debating whether he should more openly discuss his Mormon faith.
It was an arresting moment in Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign: A questioner at a Wisconsin town hall in early April stood and raised the touchy subject of Mormonism and race. Mr. Romney answered tersely and moved on.Skip to next paragraph
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But a few minutes later, when asked if he was out of touch with average voters, the wealthy former businessman opened up about his Mormon faith – not theology, but his 10 years as a lay pastor.
“That gave me the occasion,” Romney said, “to work with people on a very personal basis that were dealing with unemployment, with marital difficulties, with health difficulties of their own, and with their kids.”
This rare discussion of Mormon practice offered a glimpse into Romney the man, and raised an important question: As the presumptive Republican nominee struggles with likability, should he open up more about the role that faith has played in his life?
The Mormon issue is a double-edged sword. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its formal name, is poorly understood and viewed warily by many Americans – including evangelicals, an important part of the Republican base.
But for Romney, a fifth-generation Mormon deeply involved in his church, including missionary service in France as a young man, more discussion of his pastoral activities could help warm up his image and show that he understands the problems of ordinary Americans.
This question is under active discussion within the Romney campaign, say Republican strategists. The campaign did not reply to requests for comment.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, a prominent Mormon, warned recently that the Obama campaign will “throw the Mormon church at [Romney] like you can’t believe.” When asked about the comment, Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho, also Mormon, said, “I think the media is going to do that for the Obama campaign.”
But Congressman Labrador went on to advise Romney to open up about his experiences as a missionary and lay pastor. “He should talk about who he is and what formed him,” Labrador said April 8 on “Meet the Press.”
“All the good things he did in helping people with troubled marriages and financial troubles could be very helpful, but he’s got to feel comfortable talking about it,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who advised former candidate Jon Huntsman, also a Mormon. “That’s the thing. You can’t encourage a guy to go out and talk about stuff he just really doesn’t feel comfortable talking about in public. But he’s got a great story to tell.”
Polling on the “Mormon factor” shows Romney’s challenge. In January, a survey by YouGov found that 20 percent of Republicans nationally – and 31 percent of Southern evangelical Republicans – would not vote for a “qualified Mormon” for president. Yet Romney is prevailing anyway in the GOP nomination fight, despite losing the evangelical vote in most primaries. Many born-again Christians see Mormonism as a cult and not Christian.