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Is America ready for a Mormon president?

A charismatic communicator with an actor's good looks, a glowing resume and socially conservative politics, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could be a dream candidate for Republicans in the 2008 White House race.
/ Source: Reuters

A charismatic communicator with an actor's good looks, a glowing resume and socially conservative politics, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could be a dream candidate for Republicans in the 2008 White House race.

But is America ready to elect a Mormon president?

Romney, a devout Mormon and former bishop of Massachusetts' temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is expected to announce in January he will join what is expected to be a crowded field of Republican White House contenders.

The 'Mormon thing'
Faced with skepticism over what some Republicans call the "Mormon thing," Romney casts himself as a social conservative to the right of both Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, two of the early Republican favorites.

"He is doing all the right things for the social conservatives who drive the nomination process," said Dean Spiliotes, director of research at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

"A lot of them find him an attractive candidate. But a lot of them can't get past the whole Mormonism aspect of his faith, which puts him in a difficult position," Spiliotes said.

Analysts say Romney, 59, who did not seek re-election to focus on his national ambitions, looks set to mount a well-funded campaign that could make him a top-tier candidate.

But a more realistic goal, some add, could be the vice presidency.

Pre-campaign efforts
While traveling the nation as head of the Republican Governors Association, the former venture capitalist has taken increasingly conservative stands on hot-button issues -- gay marriage, abortion, stem-cell research and immigration -- that could appeal to his party's conservative base.

He has courted Republican donors, met with prominent evangelical leaders, huddled with lobbyists in Washington and recently hired attack advertising specialist Alex Castellanos, who worked on President George W. Bush's 2000 campaign.

On Sunday, Romney asked Massachusetts' highest court to order an anti-gay marriage amendment question onto the ballot if state lawmakers refuse to vote on the issue next year.

Stephen Wayne, a Georgetown University professor and author of "The Road to the White House," said the move "is obviously related to his desire to appeal to the Christian right in the Republican Party."

But Wayne noted a Gallup Poll in September found 66 percent of potential voters of both parties said the United States was "not ready" for a Mormon president, with only 29 percent saying the nation was ready.

"How will Protestant fundamentalists view a Mormon candidate? If the latest Gallup Poll on presidential candidates is any indication, the answer is with suspicion at best," Wayne said.

Countering suspicions
Mormon leaders have spent decades countering critics who dismiss the faith as a cult and a threat to Christianity.

The once-isolated sect based in Salt Lake City, Utah, is one of the world's fastest growing and most affluent religions, with 12.3 million members globally. But its past could haunt a Romney presidential campaign, including its now-severed links to polygamy and a former ban on blacks from leadership roles.

Romney also must overcome suspicions in the South and Midwest on how he could be a genuine conservative while governing liberal Massachusetts.

He uses humor to try and dispel those fears, telling a South Carolina audience last year that being a conservative Republican in Massachusetts "is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention."

The son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney has several advantages, political analysts say. He gained national attention for turning around the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and earned degrees from both Harvard Business and Law schools before going on to make millions in business.

But he lacks foreign policy experience and has an inconsistent record on some issues like abortion, which he said in 1994 should stay "safe and legal" before more recently declaring himself "firmly pro-life."

The defeat of his lieutenant governor in the race to succeed him as governor this year also was a blow, as was the loss of six Republican governors seats in elections earlier this month while he headed the campaign effort.

"He's going to have to deal with the fact that a Republican couldn't follow him in Massachusetts and a Democrat was able to defeat his record," said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Boston University.