He has had one marriage, five kids, no hint of personal or financial scandal, a position of responsibility in his church, and he doesn't drink, smoke or chew. By some standards, Republican Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and Christian conservative voters in Iowa are right on the same page.
But no candidate has had a harder slog with the evangelical Christians who make up the majority of Iowa caucusgoers. In 2008, they rejected Romney, who had campaigned heavily in the state, in favor of fellow-evangelical Mike Huckabee. This year, Iowa Republicans have again embraced anyone and everyone but Romney.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Herman Cain, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, have all taken their turn atop Iowa opinion polls, but Romney has led in only five polls out of 35 since July. That includes a CNN poll released Wednesday that shows Romney leading Paul.
Despite the urgency of economic issues in national presidential politics, the religious faith of candidates has been central to the Republican battle in the Iowa caucuses. In 2008, evangelical Christians made up 60% of Iowa caucusgoers, according to surveys taken on caucus night by ABC News, and they supported Huckabee, a Baptist minister, over Romney, 46% to 19%.
This time, Iowans looking for a candidate talking about faith are spoiled for choice: Bachmann, Perry and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum have made it a centerpiece of their campaigns. Paul, whose message focuses on cutting government spending, has hit hard in TV ads opposing abortion — an issue important to social conservatives — highlighting his years as an obstetrician.
If Romney is nominated, the 2012 presidential campaign would break ground. He would be the first Mormon nominated by a major party. But his struggles in Iowa raise the question: Is Romney's faith a cause of voters' diffidence?
"I think Americans want a person of faith" as president, Romney said Wednesday in an interview with USA TODAY in Clinton, Iowa. He didn't dispute that his Mormon religion was an issue for some voters but downplayed its impact. "I don't think it's going to prevent me" from becoming president, he said. Iowa and South Carolina, where there is also a significant number of evangelical Republican voters, are probably the biggest tests.
"There's no question that Romney has to run the gantlet if he wants to be the nominee, and the early states are not terribly promising," says Randall Balmer, a religion professor at Barnard College in New York City who has written about evangelicals in politics. "In the instance of evangelicals themselves, there is long-held, long-standing prejudice against Mormonism."
Dispute over definition
Though Mormons describe themselves as Christians — the church's formal name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints— some evangelical Christians do not consider them so. In a Public Religion Research Institute poll released in November, 49% of evangelical voters surveyed said they do not regard the Mormon faith as a Christian religion.
That popped up in October, when the Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Perry backer, called the Mormon Church a "cult." Perry repudiated the remark. In a discussion this month sponsored by The Iowa Republican news website, political activist Craig Berman said "a thousand pastors" were ready to argue that nominating a Mormon would result in President Obama's re-election as a punishment from God. (Berman was subsequently hired, but quickly fired, as state political director for the Gingrich campaign.)
"There are some people who this is a deal for. They'll talk about it, they're not going to shy away from talking about it," says Craig Robinson, former political director for the state Republican Party, who runs the Iowa Republican site.
Romney's faith will be an issue for evangelical voters in South Carolina, says Dave Woodard, a Republican political consultant and political science professor at Clemson University.
"I don't know how overt it will be or covert it will be," he says, "Wear your big boy pants, because it will get rough down here."
Evangelical caucusgoers haven't embraced a single candidate.
Iowa Rep. Steve King, whose endorsement is valued by conservative candidates, said Monday that he could not make up his mind - even though he had spent the day shooting pheasants with Santorum. "There hasn't been one constitutional conservative that just emerged to run away with the pack," he told The Des Moines Register. Santorum won the endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, a social conservative leader who was Huckabee's campaign chairman - but The Family Leader, the advocacy group he founded, did not make an endorsement because its members were too divided.
Political positions trouble some
There was a time when a Catholic candidate faced similar scrutiny among evangelicals. Santorum, who is Catholic but has appealed primarily to Christian voters, says he occasionally gets a comment on the trail. "I've had it mentioned to me a couple of times," he says. Gingrich converted to Catholicism, the faith of his third wife, Callista, in 2009.
"The only concern I've heard about Gingrich's Catholicism is evangelicals hoping he's had a sincere, redemptive moment," says Steve Deace, an influential Christian talk radio host in Iowa. "Back in the day, evangelicals were concerned Catholics would take orders from the pope. Now, given how many liberal Catholic politicians there are, evangelicals want a Catholic who actually does."
Romney's troubles with conservatives and evangelicals are a result of his positions, not his faith, Robinson says. The passage of universal health care in Massachusetts and Romney's changing position on abortion turn off more voters than his faith could, Robinson says.
"I've had people tell me that it's not that he's a Mormon, it's that he's a bad Mormon," Robinson says. "He didn't adhere to his church's teaching (which opposes abortion). It kind of troubles people because you just don't know where he's at."
In 2007, Romney tried to address the issue of his faith with a speech that evoked John F. Kennedy's speech to Houston ministers addressing the issue of his Catholicism: "I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law." This year, in the most recent GOP debates, he recalled his two years as a church missionary in France. On the trail, he has mentioned counseling people in difficulty in his role as a church leader in Boston.
Doug Gross, an Iowa political veteran who was chairman of Romney's campaign in 2008, says Romney should simply talk about his values and his family, not his religion.
"I don't think he wants to wear his religion on his sleeve … I don't think he can or should," Gross says. "That's not how he's built. … I think he has a deep faith and he lives his faith, which is highly commendable. But he's not prepared or willing to talk about it, because some people are skeptical or jaundiced about the Mormon faith. So bringing it up, from a political point of view, is a difficult thing to do."
If Romney is able to leverage his campaign funds and backing from establishment Republicans into the nomination, the issue of his faith may recede — even though, according to a survey released in November by the Public Religion Research Institute, 42% of Americans say a Mormon president would make them uncomfortable. More Democrats said they feel that way (50%) than Republicans (36%) or independents (38%).
"The faith factor in the general election … gets some attention, it doesn't change any votes," says Robert Oldendick of the University of South Carolina.
Dan Schnur, who ran John McCain's 2000 campaign, says an independent group backing Obama could remind voters of Romney's faith as a way to suppress Republican turnout among conservatives, likely to be least enchanted with Romney as nominee.
Deace predicts that a Romney nomination would get the attention of evangelicals nationally. "Many Christians and pastors around the country unfortunately don't pay attention until the general election. I do think you will see pastors concerned about the theological blurring of the lines between Mormonism and Christian orthodoxy start to speak out if he's the nominee."