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Romney's Mormonism & the GOP Primary

By Mark Davis

As Mitt Romney joins the crowded Republican presidential field, one question stands at the first turnstile: Will his Mormon faith be problematic for so many Republican primary voters that he is doomed?

If not, he may someday vault over the currently popular but potentially volatile candidacies of front-runners John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. But if that answer is yes, he's cooked, even if he seems in every other regard to be the heir apparent to the elusive Reagan mantle sought by most in the GOP race.

If Mr. Romney's candidacy is indeed torpedoed because the GOP is not sufficiently "ready" for a Mormon nominee, are objecting voters revealing religious bigotry or a natural predilection for candidates more spiritually similar?

Personally, I will gladly consider Mr. Romney as a candidate in the field of hopefuls and enthusiastically vote for him should he ascend to the nomination next year. I have a gut feeling that I am joined in this regard by at least 80 percent of Republican voters.

But if I'm right about that, the remaining 20 percent will blast right past Mr. Romney's message to evaluate the attributes of his rivals. That's a killer.

In a field this crowded, with two moneyed front-runners to catch, it is an insurmountable challenge to have one voter in five deaf to your pitch.

So what's going on with those voters who might cripple the Romney bid? Are they religious bigots who should be scolded for intolerance, or is their requirement for a candidate who shares their faith no different from criteria on other matters?

Some people need their candidates to have a military background. For some, divorce is a deal-breaker; for others, past drug use. The choice of a candidate is a deeply personal process in which we examine what we prefer, what we are willing to accept, and what we'd rather not deal with.

Most of those decisions involve political positions, but many others involve demeanor, speaking skills, sense of humor and other disparate factors. Why not religion?

If you sense that I am creating a defense for those who might not share my inclusive instincts regarding the Romney candidacy, you're right. But it's conditional. Those dismissing Mr. Romney out of aggressive distaste for Mormons are hateful and, I would hope, rare. Simply put, your decision to pass Mr. Romney by is not a sign of bigotry - unless you are in fact a bigot.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is made up of millions of the finest people you will ever meet. They share the Christian belief that Jesus is the son of God, resurrected so that our sins can be forgiven.

But when the curious get to the part about Jesus coming to North America and anointing Joseph Smith as a modern prophet almost 200 years ago, some eyebrows may go up. The story of God and Jesus instructing Mr. Smith to write new Scripture from hidden golden plates may be just too much for some folks to swallow.

Not necessarily from rank distaste, but sheer unfamiliarity. I would suggest that a Jewish candidate would not face as high an obstacle, and that would involve a disagreement over Jesus as the very son of God.

I have a simple rule. A candidate's faith is of no consequence to me unless it harbors the possibility of guiding his or her actions in a way I would disapprove of. Others may place the bar differently.

The Romney candidacy may be the biggest lesson America has yet received about the LDS church. That's a good thing. But like other trail-blazers, Mr. Romney may have to be the sacrifice until we get to that next Mormon candidate who will find a more comfortable and thus receptive audience.

If the Democrats win in 2008, and Republicans perceive that they unjustly denied themselves their best candidate, that next Mormon candidacy might be Mitt Romney again in 2012.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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