DES MOINES — In seeking a presidential candidate for 2008, why would Republicans look further than the governor of Massachusetts?
Tall and urbane, Mitt Romney has a prime political pedigree, an unblemished personal life and the cool confidence of a CEO. He is a conservative Republican who won easy election in a fiercely liberal state -- then streamlined Massachusetts' government and enacted the country's most sweeping healthcare overhaul.
He is a passionate defender of states' rights and recently has embraced strong views against stem cell research and abortion -- a reversal of earlier positions. He never swears, and his sole vice is Diet Coke. Not incidentally, the 59-year-old governor boasts Ivy League credentials and movie-star looks.
But Romney faces a potential obstacle that has not confronted a presidential hopeful for almost 50 years. As a devout Mormon -- and a onetime bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- Romney adheres to a faith that makes many Americans uncomfortable.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 10, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Mitt Romney: In an Oct. 10 article in Section A about Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's Mormon faith and his 2008 presidential ambitions, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention was quoted as saying: "Up until about 30 years ago, Mormons were very emphatic that they weren't Christians." The article should have noted that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- Mormons -- say they have always considered themselves Christians.
Not since John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, sought the White House in 1960 has the religion of a potential president been an issue. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that most religious barriers to high office had crumbled, but that 35% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon president.
"He starts out with a deck stacked against him," Emory University political science professor Merle Black said of Romney. "Obviously he overcame this in Massachusetts. But he is going to be dealing with a different voting group on the national level."
Since he announced in December that he would not seek a second term as governor, Romney has campaigned in key primary states -- steadfastly decreeing that his faith was a private matter. He deflects most inquiries by stating that Jesus Christ is his savior. A favorite Romney quip is that in his church, "marriage is between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman."
This laugh line, and his reluctance to delve deeper into his beliefs, only add to the mystery of a faith that many Americans associate with polygamy -- although that practice has long been outlawed by the church -- and with customs such as marrying people after they have died and converting the dead.
"Evangelicals are appalled by all that," said Pastor Ted Haggard, president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals in Colorado Springs, Colo. "We evangelicals view Mormons as a Christian cult group. A cult group is a group that claims exclusive revelation. And typically, it's hard to get out of these cult groups. And so Mormonism qualifies as that."
In addition, Haggard said, evangelicals do not accept Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith as a prophet. "And we do not believe that the Book of Mormon has the same level of authority as the Bible," he said.
When Romney says that he accepts Jesus Christ as his savior, "we appreciate that," Haggard said. "But very often when people like Mormons use terms that we also use, there are different meanings in the theology behind those terms."
Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said, "Up until about 30 years ago, Mormons were very emphatic that they weren't Christians."
But evangelicals might overlook the theological divisions if Romney were the only social conservative on the ballot, Land said.
"If given a choice between a Mormon social conservative and a Catholic social conservative or an Episcopal social conservative or a Presbyterian social conservative, they are going to pick the Catholic or the Episcopal or the Presbyterian," Land said. "But if given a choice between [former New York Mayor Rudolph W.] Giuliani and Romney, I think a lot of evangelicals would vote for Romney. We are not electing a theologian-in-chief. We are electing a commander-in-chief."
But as he campaigns in South Carolina, "the biggest weakness for Romney is that he is a Mormon," said Spartanburg County Republican Party Chairman Rick Beltram.
"He's got to convince the rank and file that Mormonism isn't some strange cult religion, and persuade people that the beliefs he holds are very much mainstream USA."
Starting with Romney's first exploratory trip to Spartanburg, S.C., in February 2005, Beltram said, "Everyone said, 'Oh boy, what does a Mormon believe in?' "
But political science professor Neal Thigpen of Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., said another hurdle for Romney among conservative Republicans is his adopted home state.
"The thing I have heard against him is, 'He seems like a good man, but gosh, Massachusetts?' " Thigpen said.
After a breakfast here for Iowa Republicans, Romney admitted in an interview that he would have been "a lot smarter to stay in Michigan" if he had foreseen his plunge into GOP politics.