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.
"There's no question that Romney's religion is a mixed bag," said Kirk Jowers, a longtime Romney advisor and head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
"It's been incredibly helpful to him in some states, in fundraising, in volunteers, in imaging," Jowers said. Romney was able to count on LDS voters in states like Nevada and Arizona to help deliver victories.
Jowers said the Utahns polled were correct in their assessment.
"It has hurt him this time less than before because Romney is know for many things, not just for being the Mormon candidate," he said. "Romney will win or lose the nomination and the general election on factors others than his religion."
The Utah voters polled agreed that other areas were also hurting Romney in the campaign, especially what's been referred to by opponents as his "flip-flopping" on key issues such as abortion.
Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said Romney's changing positions have taken a toll in the race. So has his personal wealth, according to 37 percent, and his perceived moderate political ideology, said 24 percent. Not seen as causing trouble were his work history or his leadership of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Romney's opponents have tried to make all of those issues in the campaign, but it's the candidate himself who has drawn the most attention to his privileged background as the son of Michigan's former governor and his personal fortune.
Estimated to be worth some $250 million, Romney has, for example, recently referred to his wife's two Cadillacs while describing the American cars his family drives. He also said he has friends who own NASCAR teams while attending the Daytona 500.
"That's the biggest problem he seems to have, when he tries to play the 'Everyman.' He's just remarkably bad at it," Swigger said. "Mitt Romney has a lot of strengths, but he's really rich guy and he comes across as a really rich guy."
Atlanta-based Republican strategist Joel McElhannon said that inability to connect with voters is a bigger problem for Romney than his membership in the LDS Church.
"It just undermines everything that he's doing. He struggles with connecting with people who are not wealthy and with evangelicals," McElhannon said.
Romney's faith may be a deal breaker with some evangelical voters but he called it " a small issue. The issue with Mitt Romney is not religion, it's one of trust."
While voters in the survey had strong opinions about how Romney is being perceived, they had little idea about who'd they like to see as his running mate should he secure the nomination.
A majority, 56 percent, said they just didn't know. Santorum and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is campaigning for Romney, received the most support, each with 7 percent of the Utahns polled.
Ron Paul, the other Republican in the race and a former Libertarian Party presidential candidate, was the favorite of 6 percent, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, seen by many as a likely choice, was the pick of 5 percent.
Gingrich was liked by just 3 percent; former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, by 2 percent ;and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, 1 percent. Others, like former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a former cabinet member who is campaigning for Romney, didn't garner any support.
Fourteen percent offered other choices for the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket, with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. the top name mentioned. Huntsman was a candidate for president until January, when he dropped out and endorsed Romney.
"Utahns are right," Jowers said. "We don't know and it's just too soon at this point."