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The 'Romney's a Mormon' Card: Iowa Has Played this Hand Before

One reason Romney's religion is brought up by people who don't support him: In Iowa, it appears to work.

Four years ago, as evangelical Christians flexed their political muscle during Iowa Caucus season, Republican voter Kathy Arzani winced at scripted religious nuances intended to pull support away from fellow Mormon Mitt Romney. He was the front-runner in Iowa in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

A Mormon living and worshipping in Dallas County, an enclave for evangelical politics, Arzani has seen the religion card played before: In 2007, an Iowa city councilman made national news when he called Mormonism "a cult."

This time, the anti-Mormon comments were made by the Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist minister. In his endorsement of fellow Texan Rick Perry for president, he called Mormonism a cult and Romney a faux Christian.

It's “a ludicrous scare tactic,” Arzani said, the kind of thing that’s been going on since the 1800s, when Mormons fled settlements in Missouri and Illinois and moved west and into Iowa to avoid persecution.

If Mormonism is such a threat, Arzani asks, why hasn’t Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, been similarly vilified?

The answer may be that Reid didn’t have to court Iowa’s evangelical Christian movement to get his job.

And another possible answer: Evidence shows that in Iowa, the "Romney's a Mormon" card was a winner.

What happened in Iowa in 2007-2008?

In August 2007, Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints seemed not to matter much: He won the Ames Straw Poll with 32 percent of the vote; his closest rival was former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, at 18 percent.

But by the time the caucuses rolled around in January, evangelical Christians had advanced their man, Huckabee, to the front of the pack. Huckabee won easily with 34 percent of the votes cast in a caucus that saw record turnout among Republicans, and Romney finished second with 25 percent.

What happened during those five months? A 2007 pre-caucus Des Moines Register poll measuring the importance of a candidate’s religious beliefs offers some insight, finding that:

  • More Republican voters in Iowa care about social issues than care about economic issues.
  • Three out of four likely GOP caucus-goers said it was important for them to agree with a candidate’s religious beliefs.
  • Nearly half of likely Republican caucus-goers described themselves as born-again fundamentalist Christians, and within that group, Huckabee out-polled Romney, 47 percent to 20 percent.

A candidate’s religious beliefs absolutely matter, said Jeff Mullen, pastor of Point of Grace, an evangelical Christian church in Dallas County that invited Michele Bachmann to speak on her love of America at a special Fourth of July service earlier this year.

“I think people are curious as to the framework any leader, elected or unelected, uses to make their decisions,” said Mullen, who recently announced his candidacy for a seat in the Iowa Senate in 2012. “So it’s fair to ask, ‘What are your core values?’ which are very often expressed through religious beliefs.”

'God, guns and gays'

There may be some key differences in this election cycle and the last one, said David Yepsen, a former Des Moines Register political editor who covered the caucuses for more than two decades before becoming director of Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in 2009.

The main difference: The worst recession since the Great Depression still has an unforgiving grip on most of the nation.

“Every poll out there is tied to the economy, even among social conservatives,” he said. “It’s not just God, guns and gays. People are worried about their jobs.”

And, Yepsen added, this time around the remarks could cause a backlash. Four years ago, the anti-Mormon remarks were made by non-players and amounted to little more than a whisper campaign. This time, the religious bashing boomed from the mouth of a prominent Perry supporter into an open microphone.

“It’s just not the kind of thing people say publicly about someone else’s religious faith,” Yepsen said. “It’s just beyond the pale.”

Death knell for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status?

Evangelical Christians’ increasing power at the ballot box worries moderate Republicans like Mary Kramer of West Des Moines, a former state senator and U.S. ambassador to Barbados and a current Romney supporter.

She thinks Jeffress went too far in his public denunciation of Mormonism, and Perry didn’t go far enough in repudiating it, but whether Iowans will abandon their support of Perry is “hard to tell.”

If they don’t and Perry wins the caucuses, Kramer thinks Iowa’s status as the first test of candidate strength, already under the microscope, could be further questioned because it will be seen as another case of the far-right religious fringe taking over the Iowa nominating process.

“That sort of thing really throws gasoline on the fire, and suggests that Iowans are too conservative and not representative,” she said.

Kramer said fiscal conservatives are growing weary of the evangelical movement’s apparent lack of tolerance of others’ religious beliefs. She said that as she lunched with her own former political supporters, Jeffress’ slur was a chief topic of conversation.

“This very senior guy came up to me and said, ‘What’s next? We’ve got cults? What else can we attack?’" Kramer said. "He just rolled his eyes; he’s one of those people who worries about the Republican Party being so far to the right.”

Kramer says Jeffress’ characterization not only amounts to demonization, but also a regression on an issue she thought was resolved a half-century ago when John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, won the presidency.

“I thought we had kind of settled the fact about how a person’s qualifications in this country and life experiences were measured, going back how many decades when we had a similar discussion around Catholicism,” she said.

Des Moines lawyer Jerry Crawford, a powerful political operative who has chaired multiple Democratic presidential campaigns in Iowa, said he doesn’t think Romney’s faith will prevent him from doing well in the Iowa Caucuses. And if Romney winds up winning the GOP nomination, using his faith to marginalize his candidacy, “would help Romney,” Crawford said, because there would be a backlash against the bashers.

“I think there are much more legitimate reasons to oppose Mitt Romney than his faith, such as his extraordinary intellectual flexibility when it comes to taking a position on an issue,” Crawford said. “I think that’s a way to be against him.”

Don October 13, 2011 at 09:20 PM
The Republican Party is slowing dying because they are letting the crazy drown them out. Crazy never wins in elections and ignorance is it's cousin. Obama and the Democrats are laughing all the way to the polls. God must be ashamed as His lighted city on a hill is on fire from crazies who think God wants His people to lose their freedoms because crazy people say so. His hand of vengence has been cleansing libya of its crazy through much death, and if we continue on this path, His protective arm will soon be gone. We should be running from this Party of Crazy and hold fast to the Constitution to hold dear our freedom of religion from evangelical Crazies trying to tell us their religion should rule in every office of our Great Country just like Iran does by ruling their country with one religion that kills dissenters.
Todd Richissin October 14, 2011 at 01:14 AM
Remember when a Catholic couldn't win the White House?
Maceo October 14, 2011 at 02:24 AM
In Light of Romney's Demand for Repudiation - What Mormons REALLY believe PLEASE WATCH! VERY INFORMATIVE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HSlbuli7HM
Paul Cowley October 14, 2011 at 05:54 AM
Maceo, if you intend to share the theology of Mormonism with the world, I would suggest you base your information on something more reliable than a YouTube video. For those interested in understanding more about my faith, here's an authoritative website where you can learn more about what we REALLY believe: http://www.mormon.org
Mormons Are Christian October 14, 2011 at 08:29 AM
• Here are the characteristics of a cult: • Small? The Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) has 14 million members in 132 countries. In America, there are more Mormons than there are Presbyterians or Jews. • Excessive devotion? Mormons are devoted to the Savior, but in appropriate measure He would approve of. • Unethical techniques? Ask the pie-throwers to name one. • Control by isolation? Even if Mormons wanted to, this would be impossible with 14 million members in 28,000 congregations throughout the world. • Control by threats? Again, evidence? Mormon missionaries may be exuberant, but do not threaten. • Dependency on the group? The Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) is just the opposite. Mormons want members to be self-reliant and independent so they in turn can help others. • Powerful group pressure? Only if that’s the way the critics prefer to define love. • Strange? Guilty as charged. Mormons plead guilty to all the strange things that were done by Christians in New Testament times that were lost during the great falling away in the aptly named Dark Ages, among them temple worship, vicarious baptism for the dead, definition of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit as separate but united in purpose, salvation requiring both grace and obedience to commandments, prophets and apostles, unpaid clergy, and continual revelation to guide His Church.
Busterggi October 14, 2011 at 02:21 PM
All religions are cults, some are just bigger than others.
Evil Genius Villain October 14, 2011 at 07:03 PM
Dude- That's just crazy.
Jen October 15, 2011 at 03:26 PM
Best. Comment. Ever.

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