Mitt Romney, Ann Romney
Jim Cole  /  AP
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, arrive at the Carroll County Republican Committee Lincoln Day Dinner, Saturday, March 5, 2011, in Bartlett, N.H.
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updated 3/30/2011 1:54:25 PM ET 2011-03-30T17:54:25

Mitt Romney’s religion — not his frequently parsed Massachusetts record on health care reform — is the biggest threat to his front-running status in the GOP presidential primary, a former top adviser said on Tuesday.

Carl Forti, Romney’s deputy campaign manager and political director in 2008, told the National Journal Insiders Conference that the yet-undeclared candidate in 2012 will face prejudice because of his Mormonism.

“It’s not something you can test. It’s not something you can poll,’’ Forti said after a bipartisan panel at the Grand Hyatt in Washington handicapped the 2012 field. “There’s just a bias out there.’’

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman agreed, calling it “the last acceptable social prejudice.’’

Romney’s political committee did not immediately respond.

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Mormonism is viewed as a cult by some evangelicals, who wield considerable influence in GOP primaries. Romney gave a major speech addressing his religion in 2007 and wants to focus his 2012 campaign on the struggling economy, playing to his strengths as a successful corporate executive.

But the former Massachusetts governor’s health care record could be a major stumbling block. It included an “individual mandate’’ for people to buy insurance so that the healthy and the sick alike share costs. That’s also the linchpin of the legislation passed by Congress last year that GOP leaders are trying to repeal.

Romney agrees with the repeal effort and draws a distinction between “Obamacare’’ and his state-level initiative.

In a new poll of National Journal Political Insiders, Republicans rated Romney their party's most likely nominee, followed by Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, who recently launched an exploratory committee. Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential nominee who has not revealed her plans for 2012, has dropped to ninth place.

Story: GOP insiders say Romney's still number one

Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota scored even lower in the survey, despite receiving enthusiastic receptions by Iowa voters in recent weeks. Both Palin and Bachmann are known for making provocative, headline-grabbing remarks, and whether they will run for president is one of the biggest questions looming over the race.

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“I don’t think there’s space in the electorate for both of them,’’ said Sara Fagen, a top Pawlenty adviser who was White House political director under George W. Bush.

“If Palin or Bachmann is the nominee, Obama will win in a landslide,’’ longtime Democratic strategist Tad Devine predicted. “I don’t think either one of them under the scrutiny of a long campaign will survive that scrutiny and pass the threshold of credibility for president.’’

Obama’s biggest challenge, Devine said, is bringing back the “Obama electorate.’’ That’s a younger and much more diverse group of voters than the electorate that widely repudiated Democrats in 2010. The fast-growing Hispanic population, which favors Democrats, is key.

Fagen and Forti acknowledged that the GOP turned off many Hispanic voters with harsh rhetoric about immigration. Fagen’s former boss, President Bush, touted legislation that would have allowed illegal immigrants to earn citizenship, unleashing a fierce debate that is partly blamed for Republican losses in 2006 and 2008.

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Forti, who now works as a consultant to American Crossroads, a fundraising powerhouse for conservative Republicans, said that the GOP could also run into problems if it continues to push for Social Security reform. Several potential GOP contenders have been calling for Congress to reduce the costs of entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare, to help close the federal deficit. As a lifeline for many older and dedicated voters, Social Security was long considered politically untouchable.

“No one believes that the government will let Social Security go bankrupt,’’ Forti said. “It’s hard to articulate a solution until you have sold the problem.’’

Hagen disagreed. She argued that the time is right for politicians to take on an issue that long has been regarded as the third rail of American politics. Bush couldn’t even get a hearing on Social Security in a GOP-controlled congressional committee, Hagen noted. But now, she said, “I think the country expects it.’’

The article, "Ex-Adviser: Romney Faces Religious Bias," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Will social conservatives sink the GOP in 2012?

  1. Closed captioning of: Will social conservatives sink the GOP in 2012?

    >>> the 2012 gop hopefuls are playing to social conservatives . of course. they do it all the time. they're going to iowa and trying to please them in 18 different ways. let's start with haley barbour . he went on a conservative radio show on friday and wanted to explain why we should reinstate the policy of don't ask don't tell.

    >> when you're under fire and people are living and dying on split-second decisions, you don't need any kind of amorous mind set that can affect saving people lives and killing bad guys .

    >> amorous mindset? i like where haley barbour is going. i wonder what they're thinking in that fox hole . by the way, 19-year-old straight troops don't have amorous mindsets? i think that's pretty much all guys. and how about republican presidential candidates . they don't have amorous mindsets. if you're worried about amorous mindsets, this is the guy you have to worry about. of course, gingrich joined his conservative friends in iowa on saturday. steve king was hosting conservative principles conference in des moines , iowa . 500 people attended including gingrich and some of the other candidates. of course, all the candidates tried to establish their social conservative street cred including newt.

    >> some people may tell you we should stay away from values and stay away from social issues. i'm here to tell you if you don't start with values and start establishing with who we are as americans, the rest of it doesn't matter.

    >> come on, are you serious? gingrich talking about values. we're talking about values? we had three wives! two mistresses. i don't even want to tell you how he left some of his wives. all right, but look, he wasn't the favorite in the conference. it turned out to be herman caine . partly owned godfather's pizza. he's a real social conservative . and he doubled down on his anti-muslim views in an interview with think progress .

    >> would you be comfortable appointing a muslim in your cabinet or as a federal judge .

    >> no, i will not. and here's why. there's this creeping attempt, there's this attempt to gradually ease sharia law and the muslim faith into our government. it does not belong in our government.

    >> who's doing that? that's cuckoo for cocoa puffs . there are no muslims invading the country trying to take over the country with their laws and sharia. where? what are you talking about? you know the people who are doing that? i've got to be honest with you. christian conservatives . they keep telling us, including at that conference, you've got -- no, no, no it's all about values. my values. i want to impose my values on you. so hey look, if you say religionle should not influence our laws, whoa, deal. let's shake on it. look, honestly, i thought that was the whole point of the conservative principles meet-up, but apparently not. herman caine ended up winning the straw poll . i say of course, but that's a little surprising. don't get too excited only 127 people voted. what were the others doing? out of the 500 only 127 voted. the rest were like thanks for the barbecue, see you later . i don't know if they had a barbecue. so in the end, it's up to balk man to bring home the special issues that were important because the founding fathers said so point.

    >> the truth is, social conservatism is fiscal conservatism . john adams wrote, it is only for moral and religious nation, this constitution that we write. it is wholly unsuited for any other. you can not build a nation unless it is built upon a rock solid foundation.

    >> like sharia law . i'm sorry, that's the wrong religious. we want the christian religion enforced on everybody else . here's something else the founding fathers said. don't mix church and state . don't do it. it's a bad idea. funny how she didn't quote that part. now, the important question is, will this focus on social issues help or hurt these republicans? let's find out. joining me now is david millbank, columnist for "the washington post ," and steve kornacke, political columnist for salon.com. going over there and running on these issues, is it a good idea or bad idea politically?

    >> it's not as if it's a choice. it's the only way you can survive. that's why a guy like tim pawlenty wasn't participating in this one. but in the last cattle call , he sounded like a southern preacher. he even adopted a phony southern accent as best i could tell. you know, haley barbour is -- you know, his definition is conservatism is, you know, getting the baked potatoes instead of the onion rings at his stakous. -- steak house . whether or not it's good politics in the campaign against obam that is irrelevant. they're not going to get the nomination unless they satisfy the religious conservatives.

    >> i want to come back to pawlenty later because he's one of my favorites. mitt romney didn't go, pawlenty didn't go. why didn't they go if these guys are the gatekeepers.

    >> you don't want think romney wanted to go and engage in prejudiced hiring like caine ? he's the last sane guy standing . you let iowa go, let one of the early states go and maybe in a worst case scenario for the republican party , someone like michele bachmann comes ou the and wins iowa . if you're mitt romney you're hoping that still 50%, 60% of the republican party is sane enough to say absolutely not. no way. let's go make mitt romney the nominee now.

    >> first off, let me go to you on this. can romney win without winning iowa ? iowa is pretty damn important as we saw with barack obama 's candidacy. and second of all, does michele bachmann had a real shot at iowa ?

    >> certainly those of us in the journalistic party hope so. because she's been an endless source of amusement to us. but, you know, look, it has always been calculated. and john mccain was the real test, can you ignore iowa and get away with it. he ignored it in 2000 and didn't quite get away with it. so in theory, you can do that. in practice, it will be a very difficult to pull that off for him.

    >> so if bachmann -- bachmann gets -- wins iowa , okay, if that's a big if, but i think it's possible. she energizes the crowd like no other.

    >> from your lips to god's ears.

    >> if she does that, is she a real contender?

    >> no, i don't think so. i think the republican party has obviously clearly for decades now been moving farther and farer in the right in the way information flows now. you know, it really is tougher than ever to get away from a bachmann message and succeed in the republican party . pat robertson went out to iowa and got 27% of the vote. alan keyes got third place in 2000 . they've been coming closer and closer to this moment. there used to be somebody like george w. bush who could sort of tower over them and could be acceptable and then you can have the establishment. there's not that big acceptable guy who can run and nip these guys in the bud there. .

    >> but if she wins in iowa , are you sure she's not going to win in south carolina ?

    >> here's what it is. it's what happened when pat buchanan beat bob dole in the new hampshire primary. the republicans did not like bob dole . but they said we'll put the sleepy old man up because there's no way we'll put pat buchanan up.

    >> i think this republican party is a lot crazier. and they love bachmann . but dana, look, i liked the two people from minnesota on the republican side . that's me coming back to pawlenty who i think is the dullest candidate we've had in a long, long time. i want to play a game with an audience before i ask you. we all know he was governor of minnesota, ewe watch the news you know that. what else has pawlenty done? give him time, give him time. i don't know. i don't even know. dana what has he done? i think bachmann has a ten times better chance than pawlenty . what do you think?

    >> he was a champion for cap and trade. oh, wait. he's taken that back now. never mind. he's a guy -- look, governors are -- should be competitive in a general election . he's got a decent record of running in what is primarily a blue state . the primary electorate doesn't necessarily want to hear about that right now. the south carolina electorate is going to look a lot like iowa . it's become a narrower and narrower slice making that decision. i don't think it's all impossible that a michele buckmbuc bachmann getting voters that would otherwise have gone to sarah palin .

    >> it's a fascinating conversation. it's going to go on for a while. thank you for your time tonight. we appreciate it.

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