Does Mitt Romney Have a Prayer with Evangelicals?

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When Mitt Romney makes his appearance at Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Conference Friday evening in Washington, he won’t exactly be headed into the lion’s den—but it might seem that way to him. A Pew Research study released on Thursday showed that Romney has the most potential appeal of any candidate in the GOP field for 2012. But the key word there is “potential.” Twenty-five percent of all voters say they would be less likely to support a candidate who is Mormon, like Romney. And a full third of white evangelicals express an aversion to Mormon candidates.

Those numbers are essentially unchanged from four years ago, when Romney first ran for the GOP nomination. That’s bad news for the former Massachusetts governor, whose supporters have often argued that suspicion about the Mormon faith would fade as voters became familiar with a Mormon candidate. White evangelicals don’t have vague anti-Mormon prejudices—they have very specific theological disputes that can’t be overcome by personality or even shared positions on social issues. Many believe, and are told in their churches, that Mormons are cult members and not Christians.

Romney does not have the luxury of ignoring white evangelicals, although he has indicated that he may not contest the Iowa caucuses, which are dominated by social conservatives, as seriously as he did in 2008. White evangelicals have steadily become the largest single bloc that selects the Republican presidential nominee—in 2008, they made up 44% of all GOP primary voters. (Would Newt Gingrich be better off running as a gay man?)

The Romney campaign did its best to head off that anti-Mormon bias in 2008 by gathering endorsements from evangelical leaders like Chuck Colson and working with evangelical PR professional Mark DeMoss to communicate with the community. Romney even gave a speech in December 2007 in which he promised that he would not take orders from church leadership in Salt Lake if elected president. It was essentially an updated version of the same promise JFK felt obligated to make to Baptist leaders in 1960, distancing himself from Catholic leadership in Rome.

At the same time, however, Romney had to deal with vicious whispering campaigns and outright attacks on his faith. In South Carolina, many Republicans received bogus Christmas cards, purporting to be from the Romney family, that cited controversial passages from the Book of Mormon. Others received an eight-page anonymous document that described Mormonism as a religion built on hoaxes and compared founder Joseph Smith to the Prophet Mohammed. An e-mail circulated among Republicans, urging them to “trust your instincts” about Mormonism: “Those dark suspicions you hide deep inside yourself about Mormonism are trying to tell you something.” (PHOTOS: Romney on the presidential campaign trail)

Perhaps the most damaging attacks were not anonymous, but from religious leaders who simply told their flocks that Romney was not a Christian and that they could not vote for a Mormon. The pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas declared in a sermon that “Even though [Romney] talks about Jesus as his Lord and savior, he is not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. Mormonism is a cult.” Florida evangelist Bill Keller wrote a widely-circulated commentary titled “A Vote for Romney is a Vote for Satan.”

The attacks worked, and Romney’s past qualified position on abortion as governor of Massachusetts only deepened the distrust. By the time he dropped out of the race in early February 2008, Romney had gathered just over 20% of the white evangelical vote. (Romney makes it official: “Barack Obama has failed America”)

But now he’s back, fully aware of the attacks he’ll face, particularly if he appears to be the frontrunner going into next year’s primary season., the site run by conservative godfather Richard Viguerie, has already claimed that a majority of Tea Partiers would vote for a third-party candidate in 2012 if Romney is the GOP nominee. Looking to wound Romney’s candidacy before he can take command of the field, evangelical Christian author Warren Smith released an essay last week calling Mormonism a “false and dangerous religion” and arguing that a Mormon president would threaten Christianity.

And then there’s popular culture, which just can’t seem to give Romney a break. The HBO series “Big Love” about polygamous Mormons passing as a regular suburban family premiered right around the same time Romney launched his first presidential bid. The Broadway smash hit of this spring is “The Book of Mormon,” a religious satire by the creators of “South Park” that does not exactly depict Mormonism as part of mainstream America. (See Romney’s top 10 gaffes of 2008.)

The best thing Romney has going for him is that evangelical voters may have no other options. No candidate currently in the race has the appeal of Mike Huckabee, the Baptist minister who inspired enthusiasm among evangelical voters in the 2008 primaries. And most of Romney’s declared and presumed opponents leave voters either yawning or slightly queasy. (One prospective rival, Jon Huntsman, is also a Mormon.) The same Pew poll found that nearly 40% of GOP voters said there was “no chance” they would ever vote for Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin. By comparison, only 18% of Republicans said they would never consider backing Romney. Some of those voters who don’t want to support a Mormon realize that they may have to.

Updated at 3:39 p.m.