With Mitt Romney's Mormon faith in the news, his beliefs are likely to be questioned during the second Republican presidential candidate debate tonight in South Carolina and his answers could be a test of whether he can win over evangelical voters.
The 90-minute debate, which will be broadcast on the Fox News cable channel beginning at 7 p.m., comes after Romney used the word "bigoted" to describe a comment made by the Rev. Al Sharpton during a debate on religion that suggested Mormons don't believe in God.
Plus, Romney's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is also the focus of the current Time magazine's cover story and was covered in a "60 Minutes" interviewed that aired Sunday on CBS News.
"I'm sure it will come up in some form, the question of faith," said Kelly Patterson, director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "I'd be surprised if he wasn't, at some level, given an opportunity to provide his response."
Sharpton's comment that "as for the one Mormon running for office, those that really believe in God will defeat him anyway, so don't worry about that, that's a temporary situation," increases the likelihood faith will be a topic, Patterson said.
Sharpton, a Pentecostal minister and former Democratic presidential candidate, has apologized publicly to all Mormons and privately to LDS Church leaders for the comment. He is planning a visit to Utah to "create a dialogue" with church leaders.
The controversy, Patterson said, "keeps alive the theme seen throughout the campaign, which is what the impact of religion is on voters' choices," especially in conservative South Carolina, where some 40 percent of Republicans see themselves as evangelicals.
"It's a very appropriate question for South Carolina," said Andru Blonquist, a builder in Greenville, S.C., who attended BYU and serves as administrator for a pro-Romney blog, "South Carolinians for Romney," www.scforromney.com.
Blonquist said in a telephone interview that when South Carolinians first encounter his faith, "there's a lot of ignorance, there's a lot of misunderstanding. It's easy to picture a Mormon ... but it's a completely different thing to meet them and interact with them and realize they're normal people."
Blonquist said that's key for Romney, who has limited name recognition but holds appeal as the more conservative of the top-tier candidates, a list that also includes former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
"Their first sense is, it's sort of plug your nose and vote for the Mormon. But then as people start getting to know him, they think he's a good guy," Blonquist said. "I think a win in South Carolina would definitively silence the religion issue."
Although Romney has done well in straw polls at political gatherings throughout South Carolina, his campaign has already spent money on television commercials to help increase his name recognition.
"He's still not as well-known as the other candidates," Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said. "He's certainly the one to bring the real conservative change to Washington. ... I think that's what voters see when he's in these forums."
Especially since the debate is being sponsored by Fox News, widely seen as the most conservative cable news network.
Gitcho said Romney is ready for any questions about his faith.
"It's Fox. I wouldn't be surprised about it because they do cover it a lot," she said of Romney's Mormonism. "He has been asked the Mormon question just about everywhere he goes. ... He's certainly not a stranger to that issue."
Romney is attempting to use the attention from tonight's debate to rally 24,000 new supporters in 24 hours through some 800 parties nationwide during the event as well as 50 "call centers," on Wednesday.
One of Romney's five sons, Josh, will be among the Utahns hosting debate gatherings. Josh Romney will also be at one of three call center events in Utah, at Sandy's South Towne Expo Center.Other call centers, where Romney backers are being asked to gather and make calls to their friends for contributions and commitments to volunteer, are in St. George and Provo. Information is available at the Romney Web site, www.mittromney.com.