Evan Vucci, AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop at William Jewell College on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 in Liberty, Mo. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Last week it became clear that LDS Church member Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for president. This is a momentous event for millions of Mormons who may have doubted it could ever happen. However, the general election campaign will be negative and nasty. We explore the continuing ramifications of Romney's religion in the presidential race.

In hindsight, was religion as big a factor in the recent primary contests as it was in 2008?

Pignanelli: "Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is." — Mahatma Gandhi Religion was an element in the recent primary elections, just more subtle than four years ago. But it was both a detriment and a benefit to Romney. Undoubtedly, much of the support Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum received in the Southern states was suspicion by evangelical voters toward Romney's LDS belief. "We are voting for a true conservative" was a clever cloak for this bigotry. However, the majority of Catholic primary voters supported Romney over fellow Catholics Gingrich and Santorum because of religion. We Catholics have two millennia of history to distill the real crazies in our church. Thus, Republican Catholics knew exactly what they were getting with Santorum, and the overwhelming majority chose the comfort of Romney's moderate LDS adherence. Many voters perceived Romney's faith as a positive force in his life — an encouraging sign for Mormons.

Webb: As a typical Utah Mormon, I suppose I have always had a bit of a persecution complex, sort of expecting bad treatment of my religion whenever it becomes part of a national discussion. That was reinforced by the 2008 primaries.

So I must admit that even as Romney geared up his presidential campaign last year and quickly emerged as the front-runner, I never quite allowed myself to believe that he could actually be nominated — become the standardbearer of a major political party, one of two finalists seeking the most powerful position on Earth.

But, by golly, it's going to happen, barring some cataclysmic political event.

Romney's religion was not as big a factor this election cycle as it was in 2008, even though it was a constant topic of discussion among pundits and voters. Romney has essentially been running for president now for six years and has become a known quantity. So voters have learned that he has only one wife and isn't hiding horns beneath that perfect hair. With familiarity comes acceptance.

With Santorum out, and Gingrich on life support, will evangelical Republicans finally rally around Romney?

Webb: Yes, to a large degree. Some will do so grudgingly and will put conditions on their support. They will grumble as Romney pivots to some degree to the center. But most of them fear another four years of Barack Obama more than they fear having a Mormon in the White House.

If Republicans in all corners of the "big tent" don't unite behind Romney, then Obama, a great campaigner, communicator and fundraiser, will win. But most Republicans fully understand what's at stake in this election — Obama's government-centric world view, or Romney's opportunity-centric philosophy.

Pignanelli: Hmmm, maybe. "America's Pastor" — the famous evangelical minister Rick Warren — on a national network news program last week denied Mormons are Christians because of the "issue of the trinity" (Really?! So according to this religious leader, when the Lord returns the first inquiry into our soul is not whether we lived in a Christlike manner, but were we Athanasian, Modalist or Tritheist in our trinity beliefs?) Romney's challenges with the right remain. Most evangelical Republicans will hold their nose and support Romney over Obama, but they will not be enthusiastic — a problem in voter turnout.

Will Democrats, or other organizations opposed to Romney, use his religion as a campaign tool in the general election?

Pignanelli: The Obama campaign and the national Democratic Party will not use religion in their campaign activities. Yet, from my inner core, I hate making the next prediction. Several PACs and other organizations are gearing up to attack Romney through his faith, especially as to sexual orientation and gender issues. In the short term, it will be a rough road. But in the long term, Americans will have confirmed what they have known all along — that the Mormon family in the neighborhood possesses a noble set of values and beliefs.

Webb: The official Democrats will be careful not to overtly exploit the religion issue. However, their surrogates and supporters will absolutely malign the Mormon religion as they try to hurt Romney. And the Mormon haters will certainly use this rare spotlight to ferociously attack the church's doctrines, practices and history. Expect even more anti-Mormon websites, books and articles.

So the LDS Church will be the center of attention like never before in its history, not just in the U.S., but worldwide. News media across the planet have done their Mormon stories, but the realistic prospect of a Mormon president (Family Home Evening in the White House?!) will focus the limelight ever more brightly. And with that focus comes great opportunity. Is the church ready? Clearly, the church has dramatically expanded its communications infrastructure, with sophisticated websites and social media.

So fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a wild ride for the next six months, both for the presidential campaign and for the LDS Church.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.