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Does Romney's faith concern a quarter of Americans, or is conservative America turning its eyes to Mitt?

Published: Thursday, May 24 2012 11:06 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, greet supporters at his campaign headquarters in Charleston, S.C.  (Charles Dharapak, File, Associated Press) FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, greet supporters at his campaign headquarters in Charleston, S.C. (Charles Dharapak, File, Associated Press)

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Tuesday indicated that 27 percent of Americans feel having a Mormon president "would cause concern" for themselves, someone in their family or neighborhood, or someone with whom they work.

That a quarter of Americans were willing to express "concern" is notable, reporter Laura Meckler wrote, because "Americans are reluctant to admit they harbor biases against particular groups."

Survey results showed that 16 percent of respondents said having a Mormon president would "raise concerns for you or your family," while 11 percent said it would "raise concerns for people in your neighborhood or who you work with." The pollsters added those two numbers together to get the total of 27 percent expressing concern.

The number was higher among evangelical Christians, 1 in 3 of whom expressed concerns. Which raises a question not addressed by the WSJ/NBC poll: Does "raise concern" mean the same thing as "won't vote for"?

FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2011, file photo Republican presidential hopeful, former Massachusetts  Gov. Mitt Romney, right, greets a young supporter during a town hall event in Peterborough, N.H. (Michael Dwyer, File, Associated Press) FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2011, file photo Republican presidential hopeful, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, greets a young supporter during a town hall event in Peterborough, N.H. (Michael Dwyer, File, Associated Press)

Since Romney became the presumptive nominee, multiple signs have pointed to a shift to Romney's side among Republican evangelicals and other conservatives who had fought against him or had expressed concern about his Mormon faith.

For example, Romney's national favorable rating has climbed quickly to 50 percent, by far the highest it's been since Gallup started tracking him in 2006. The rise has been fueled by Republicans coalescing behind him. In February, 65 percent of Republicans viewed him favorably. Today, 87 percent do.

A Brookings Institution report last week similarly captured the new dynamic, finding scant evidence that Romney's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "had 'more than a trivial effect' on his presidential prospects," CBS News reported.

A new survey indicates Americans have some A new survey indicates Americans have some "concern" over putting a Mormon in the White House. (Shutterstock)

Like his favorable rating, Romney's fundraising spiked in April, indicating that major Republican donors are willing to back Romney against President Obama.

More anecdotally, many evangelical Christians have indicated that while Romney was not their Republican of choice during the political primary process, now that he is the party's presumptive nominee they are prepared to work and vote for him as "the lesser of two evils."

"I think there's a realization among Christians that Jesus isn't on the ballot this year," said the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, who created a media firestorm last fall when he referred to Mormonism as a religious cult and said Romney is only "a conservative out of convenience."

"I haven't changed my tune," Jeffress said recently. "I still maintain there are vast differences in theology between Mormons and Christians, but we do share many of the same values, like the sanctity of life and religious freedom."

In other words, you could likely count Jeffress among those who would be "concerned" about having a Mormon in the White House. But you can also count him among those who will actually vote for Romney against President Barack Obama.

"Given the choice between a Christian like Barack Obama, who embraces non-Biblical principles like abortion, and a Mormon like Mitt Romney, who embraces Biblical principles, there is every reason to support Mitt Romney in this election," Jeffress said.

Jeffress is not the only evangelical Christian who sees it that way. Although Romney struggled to get evangelical backing early in the primary season, a recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that white evangelical voters prefer Romney over President Obama by a 68 percent to 19 percent margin. The survey also shows that Romney's favorability rating among white evangelical Christians has grown from 40 percent last October – about the same time as Rev. Jeffress' negative comments, noted above – to 67 percent this month.

According to the survey report, "there are clear signs that white evangelical voters are moving beyond any reservations they may have held earlier in the campaign about Romney's Mormon faith."

Again anecdotally, many conservative pundits previously hostile to Romney lined up behind him almost the minute the primary battle wrapped up. For example, Allahpundit and Ed Morrisey, two high profile commentators at the prominent conservative blog Hot Air both immediately closed ranks and began speaking approvingly of the Romney campaign's quickness and competence and its ability to take the fight to the enemy, drawing a stark contrast to the languishing indirection the McCain camp demonstrated.

Allahpundit's prior hostility had been especially noteworthy because he is an avowed atheist and tilts libertarian and had found himself touting Santorum for weeks on end. As soon as the primary battle ended, he defended Romney from anti-Mormon attacks. And Morrissey defended Romney on the high school prank issue.

One of Romney's stiffest and most vocal critics was not tea party at all. It was the neo-con publisher of the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, who was often brutal in his criticism. On May 14, he officially buried the hatchet, noting that he Romney was far from a perfect candidate and would probably be frustrating at times. But Kristol insists that he expects Romney to win:

"It will all be water off our duck-like back here at The Weekly Standard. We won’t worry about it, and we’ll try not even to notice it, since there’s not much we can do about it. And the good news is that, at the end of the day, it will probably all be water off the voters’ backs too. Mitt Romney will be the kind of candidate he is, he’ll run the kind of campaign he runs—and he’ll probably defeat President Obama.

"Indeed, he probably has a better chance to win if he relaxes and runs as .  .  . himself. Most candidates aren’t very good at trying to be what they’re not. In 1996, Bob Dole said he’d try to sound like Ronald Reagan if that’s what people wanted. He picked Jack Kemp as a running mate to try to spice up the ticket and embraced a tax plan he didn’t really believe in and couldn’t explain. It didn’t work."

email: jwalker@desnews.com

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