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.

Steven Senne/AP
In this April 5 photo, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks in Tunkhannock, Pa.

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.

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.

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.

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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