SALT LAKE CITY — The GOP race for president seems to have entered a new phase.
Former Utah Olympic boss and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appears to be solidifying his front-runner status, at least for the moment.
But his opponents are pounding him for perceived weaknesses.
The latest example, a campaign ad from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, which juxtaposes Romney's health care plan with that of President Barack Obama's. With the kind of loud explosions and ominous music found in the typical Hollywood trailer, the ad shows Romney, then with a lightning bolt/thunder crash, the image morphs to Obama.
It also shows what clearly looks like a digitally altered image of both Romney and Obama, seated and signing a bill before members of Congress, like former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the late Ted Kennedy.
Longtime Utah Senator Bob Bennett, a Romney backer, says Perry's harder edge shows he's lost momentum and the race is Romney's to lose.
"As I look at the other seven (candidates), I don't see anybody there who looks strong enough or well enough connected. And by connected, I mean organizationally, as well as financially, to be able to break through," Bennett said.
Thanks to Romney's campaign experience and the failure of a serious alternative to emerge, the race appears to be Romney's to lose, according to Bennett. "It looks pretty clear that Mitt is the class of the field," he said.
The ad comes after what was the pivotal "Mormon moment" so far, when an evangelical Christian leader on Friday turned his endorsement of Rick Perry into an attack on Romney.
Robert Jeffress, a pastor from Dallas, who introduced Perry at a Value Voters Summit in Washington, told reporters: "Mitt Romney's a good moral person, but he's not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity."
Romney fired back, saying "Poisonous language does not advance our cause. It has never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind."
Perry distanced himself from the pastor's remarks. When asked directly, "Is Mormonism a cult?" Perry said, "No."
BYU political scientist Quin Monson said that compared with Romney's 2008 run, the issue may be fading.
"There's a lot more pushback this time to the kind of comments that we've heard over the weekend," Monson said Monday. I think there's less interest on the part of the media to report it nationally."
The other Mormon in the race, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., told reporters in New England, "Here in New Hampshire, that is seen as the most ridiculous sideshow in recent politics. ... I have no idea why people are wasting so much political capital and bandwidth on this issue."
Bennett said that compared with 2008, Romney is a known quantity and that most evangelicals want the candidate best prepared to face Obama.
"I don't think it's going to hurt Mitt," Bennett said, unlike the last time. "Now four years later, when a pastor stands up and says, "Mitt Romney is a Mormon!' the reaction is 'Tell us something we didn't already know.' For that reason, I think it's not going to have as much of an impact."
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