Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman Jr. mull Mormon dilemma

Published: Saturday, July 31 2010 9:48 p.m. MDT

Mitt Romney

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Don't expect to hear Mitt Romney talk a lot about being a Mormon if he runs again for president in 2012.

The same likely goes for another potential GOP candidate, Jon Huntsman Jr., the U.S. ambassador to China and a former Utah governor.

Both Romney and Huntsman have made statements recently suggesting their Mormonism will not be accepted by everyone.

In Romney's case, his advisers are acknowledging they learned in his 2008 race for the White House that his LDS faith is an impossible sell to some voters.

Should the former Utah Olympic leader make another bid for the presidency, he won't be trying to woo the largely evangelical wing of the party that doesn't accept Mormons as Christians.

"There are just some people for whom it will not be settled," Romney recently told the Boston Globe. "That's just the nature of who we are as a people. A lot of people have differing views."

Huntsman, seen as a less-likely candidate after his appointment by Democratic President Barack Obama last year, appears to be taking a different tack.

In a recent Fortune magazine interview that appeared on CNNMoney.com, his Mormon credentials were described as "soft," unlike his more devout family. His father, Jon Huntsman Sr., is an Area Seventy in the LDS Church.

The former governor noted in the interview that his children attend Catholic schools, and his adopted daughters come from different religious cultures, one Buddhist, the other Hindu.

"I can't say I am overly religious," Huntsman is quoted as saying in the interview, which refers to his consideration of a 2012 run. "I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies."

Neither Romney nor Huntsman is elaborating on the role of religion in the coming election, and their spokesmen had no comment. But it's clear both approaches are a decided shift from 2008.

Then, Romney attempted to confront concerns about his Mormonism directly, in a speech on religion delivered at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas in December 2007. Modeled after the famous speech by then-candidate John F. Kennedy addressing fears the Vatican would control a Catholic president, Romney pledged not to be distanced from his faith and stressed the beliefs he shared with conservatives.

The speech came during campaign coverage in the mainstream media that questioned whether a Mormon could be president, given the suspicions some held about the faith. A Time magazine cover story had asked, "Sure, He Looks Like a President. But What Does Mitt Romney Really Believe?" A "60 Minutes" interview at the time dealt with everything from polygamy to premarital sex.

That's the kind of scrutiny Romney appears to be preparing to avoid in the future, even though he isn't expected to decide on a 2012 run until over the Christmas holidays.

While it may be too soon to speculate on the impact of Huntsman's comments about his religious beliefs, Romney's advisers are talking about writing off the conservatives who won't accept Mormonism.

The rest of the electorate, they're hoping, will be more interested in Romney's stands on issues like the economy, so religion won't be front and center this time around.

"It sounds like what the Romney folks want to do is just get the story line out in the press early," said Nathan Oman, a professor at William & Mary Law School in Virginia. "That, I think, can kind of reduce its salience for a group of folks who aren't persuadable."

Oman, a Mormon who holds a political science degree from Brigham Young University and a law degree from Harvard University, said Romney would be smart to shift attention from issues like faith.

"Mormonism is a big handicap to him," Oman said. "I don't see any way that a Mormon politician can successfully woo evangelical voters who have a strong religious aversion to Mormonism."

In the 2008 race, Romney "had a hard time selling himself as a hard-core conservative," Oman said. "Once he put that on the table, his particular flavor of religion became important."

Of course, any change to his image could revive charges of flip-flopping that Romney ran into last time, because he was a moderate on many social issues when he won the Massachusetts governor's office in 2002.

"The question is, how many times can you reposition yourself before you look like a phony," Oman said, noting a new focus on the economy would be "much closer to the real Mitt Romney than Mitt Romney, the cultural warrior."

Matthew Wilson, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who specializes in religion and politics, said reinvention is a bigger problem for Romney than religion.

"I think Romney has basically said about all he can say about Mormonism. He addressed it head-on in the last presidential election," Wilson said. "The bigger danger for Romney is if he appears to be reinventing himself yet again."

He said the effect of Romney's faith has been exaggerated.

"The biggest reservation people have about Mitt Romney is the perception he's too slick and doesn't really stand for anything," Wilson said. "More than being a Mormon, he's got to fight against being seen as shifty."

But Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime Romney backer, said turning the focus away from religion just makes sense.

"Everyone knows he's a Mormon," Jowers said.

And history is on Romney's side. When the Boston businessman first ran for office against Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1992, his faith was used to help defeat him. By the time Romney finished running the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake and returned to Massachusetts to run for governor, though, his Mormonism no longer mattered to voters.

"It was a complete non-issue," Jowers said. "So the hope for Romney supporters is whatever religious confusion that may have cost him votes in 2008 will be mitigated by 2012."

e-mail: lisa@desnews.com

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