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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.

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Now, as Romney pivots toward the general election against President Obama, the Mormon challenge is narrower. But it’s still present – not in the Deep South, which is solidly Republican and already a lock for Romney despite his faith – but in battleground states. Think Virginia, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, and Missouri, all of which have areas with large evangelical populations.

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For most Republicans, the desire to defeat Mr. Obama outweighs any reservations over Romney’s religion – or, for that matter, his past as a moderate governor of Massachusetts. But if the race is tight, the possibility, however slim, that some Republicans might stay home concerns conservative activists.

“You’ve got to get every last one of your folks that are normally part of your coalition” to turn out, says Gary Bauer, a Christian conservative leader who backed Rick Santorum. “I don’t think [Romney’s faith] will be a massive problem among evangelicals, but if 4 or 5 percent stay home, it could throw states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Missouri into Obama’s column.”

Among less religious voters who might be on the fence come November between Romney and Obama, gut feelings about each man’s persona and character could be pivotal. On the question of who “seems like the more friendly and likable person,” Obama crushes Romney 64 percent to 26 percent, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released April 10. Obama is also “more inspiring” than Romney, by 55 percent to 29 percent.

This is where suggestions that Romney open up more about his community work come in. Even as a busy business executive in the 1980s and ‘90s in Boston, he found time to help others.

“I wouldn’t go crazy on it, if I were him,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “But if it softens him from this corporate raider, Mr. Millionaire, it can work for him.”

Another challenge for Romney – if he does decide to talk more about his pastoral work – is in discussing people he counseled without revealing details that violate their privacy. At his April 2 town hall in Howard, Wisc., Romney spoke generally about the “bag of rocks” most Americans carry behind them.

“One of the reasons I’m running for president of the United States is I want to help people,” Romney said. “I want to lighten those burdens.”

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