Gerald Herbert, Associated Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Utah voters believe GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's Mormon faith is having less of a negative impact in the race than it did four years ago, according to a new Deseret News/KSL poll.
But political observers say Romney's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could still cost him votes in this week's elections, especially among evangelicals in Ohio and Georgia, which have the most delegates of the 10 "Super Tuesday" states.
"It certainly doesn't help him. It hurts him to some degree, but it's not clear how much," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
Bullock said Georgia is expected to be the "last hurrah" for former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich, who beat Romney in South Carolina with the help of evangelical voters there who are outspoken in their view that Mormons are not fellow Christians.
In Georgia, Bullock said, evangelical voters are not as vocal about their views toward Mormons. "A number of them will say when asked that they're going to pray about it," he said.
Ohio State University political science professor Nathaniel Swigger said Romney my well run into anti-Mormon sentiment there, too.
For Romney, "the question always was whether people were willing to vote for a Mormon. The more they get to know him as a candidate, the less of a problem that is," he said.
"I'm not sure how much it's going to motivate the vote here," Swigger said. "It's something that always could be a factor."
While Ohio is considered a swing state that could go either Republican or Democratic in November's general election, Swigger said it's also blue-collar and has a large evangelical population.
"Ohio doesn't really have the reputation, but it is, particularly in rural areas, very culturally conservative," he said, noting those are the same voters that Romney has had a hard time connecting with throughout the campaign.
Romney is trailing in Ohio behind former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, his current rival for the Republican nomination. Santorum has reached out to evangelical voters with his focus on social issues key to conservative, including opposition to abortion.
"The more you make religion salient," Swigger said, "the more important it can be in driving intolerance in beliefs about Mormons."
Utah State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said Romney's campaign has suffered because of his religious beliefs.
"It's still not a sure thing that Mitt Romney will come out with the Republican nomination. I'm convinced one of the reasons he's had so much trouble is there's this lingering anti-Mormonism," Dabakis said.
He called it the "last bastion of prejudice that's still allowed" in the United States. "It's a shame," the Democratic leader said. "And I think it's definitely played out in this Republican primary."
A significant portion of Utah voters, 45 percent, still see Romney's religion as hurting his candidacy, down from 69 percent in a 2008 poll. Thirty-nine percent in the current poll said Romney's faith has made no difference in the race.
Conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, the survey of 406 registered voters statewide on Feb. 29-March 1 has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.
The religious affiliation of respondents appeared to have limited impact on their opinion. Of those who identified themselves as LDS, 48 percent said being Mormon had hurt Romney. So did 49 percent of Catholics, 32 percent of other faiths and 46 percent of those with no religious preference.
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