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Mitt Romney's Mormon religion: Is it a political problem?

Mitt Romney says as president he would not be swayed by his church. But a significant number of voters – especially evangelical Protestants – say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon.

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Unfortunately for Romney – and for the cause of religious pluralism and tolerance in the United States – that did not stop the questions about his faith, questions that are being asked again as he heads into the presidential nominating process and toward the 2012 election.

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According to a new Pew Research Center poll, 25 percent of all voters say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate if he or she were a Mormon.

More significantly in terms of winning his party’s nod, 34 percent of white evangelical Protestants say they would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate, according to Pew. Such voters made up 44 percent of GOP primary voters in 2008 – a group Romney did not do well with before he dropped out of the race.

Back then, Romney had been the target of rumors about his faith as well as outright criticisms from some evangelical pastors. Could things be different for him in 2012?

GOP candidates court religious conservatives

On Friday night, Romney joined most of the other likely GOP presidential candidates at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s conference, the gathering of religious and social conservatives organized by Ralph Reed.

He referred to "our belief in the sanctity of human life," said marriage should apply to "one man and one woman,” and said the nation’s high unemployment rate amounts to “a moral crisis” that can threaten marriages.

But “he didn’t pander to the heavily evangelical audience, which represents a large slice of the GOP primary electorate,” reports Beth Reinhard of the National Journal. “Instead of trying to gloss over his previous support for abortion rights and pass himself off as a rock-ribbed social conservative – as he did in 2008 – he stuck with the fiscal platform he laid out at his official campaign kickoff the day before in New Hampshire…. He didn’t get knocked off message.”

That message is largely about the economy, less so about social issues.

Unlike 2008, he may downplay the Iowa caucuses, putting more resources into the primary election in New Hampshire (where he officially launched his candidacy this past week).

With Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee out of the race, Michele Bachmann – a proud social and religious conservative with what some see as Palinesque idiosyncrasies – might be expected to do well in Iowa, her native state.

If she wins there, some are speculating, Republicans – including those with concerns about Mitt Romney’s religion – might just turn to the more staid and predictable businessman.

Election 101: Nine facts about Mitt Romney and his White House bid

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