Can a Mormon presidential candidate win over the Republicans’ evangelical base?

“I came today not to give a political speech,” former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. told the crowd in a downtown Washington ballroom Friday, “but simply to introduce myself and my family.”

There was, however, nothing simple about it. The audience he was addressing consisted of hundreds of politically oriented Christian conservatives. Huntsman, who is expected to announce soon that he is running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, is a Mormon.

The message that Huntsman, who is largely unknown nationally, seemed to be delivering to the annual conference of the Faith and Freedom Coalition was this: My values are no different from yours.

The other Mormon in the race — former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who is presumed to be the early front-runner — also addressed the group. But where Huntsman made overt references to God, Romney made none. Instead, he emphasized economic themes: unemployment, declining home prices, debt, foreclosures.

“Barack Obama has failed the American people,” Romney said.

Conservative Christians constitute a crucial part of the GOP base, one that can win elections if they are motivated to turn out. They represented as much as a third of all those who showed up to vote in the 2010 election that returned the House to Republican control, according to analyses of exit polls.

In a sign of that constituency’s importance in the Republican presidential primary, nearly every declared or potential candidate was scheduled to appear at the two-day conference. The only notable absences were former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

The Faith and Freedom Coalition was founded in 2009 by longtime GOP operative Ralph Reed as an effort to create a 21st-century version of the Christian Coalition, which was a major political force in the 1990s.

But the fact that two of top-tier GOP contenders are Mormons is one of great sensitivity as Republicans contemplate the presidential race ahead. Conservative Christians have deep theological differences with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some evangelical ministers even preach that Mormonism is a cult.

A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday showed how this could be a problem. While one in four of the 1,509 surveyed overall said they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate if he or she is a Mormon, the percentage among white evangelical respondents was 34 percent — the highest of any religious group. By comparison, only 19 percent of Catholics and white mainline Protestants said they would be more reluctant to support a Mormon.

As governor, Huntsman said, he had signed every anti-abortion bill that reached his desk. But in other areas — including his support for same-sex civil unions — Huntsman has been more moderate than many in the religious right.

While fiscal issues are dominating the political debate, “I do not believe the Republican party should focus only on our economic life,” he said.

“If Republicans ignore life, the deficit we will face is one that is much more destructive,” he added. “It will be a deficit of the heart and of the soul.”

He also recounted how he had adopted a Chinese orphan abandoned in a vegetable market. He said that when his 10-year-old daughter is asked who found her there, “she simply replies, ‘Jesus.’ ”

Huntsman, who was introduced by Reed as “a good conservative and a great friend,” got a polite but not exuberant reception from the group, which earlier had greeted Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) with loud applause.

Bachmann got a standing ovation when she promised to overturn the health-care law that represents the signature achievement of Obama’s presidency, but she also ended her speech with a prayer for the president and other leaders.

Bachmann, like Palin, is an evangelical Christian who has strong support in the tea party movement. They could represent a new breed of politician who is able to soothe the strains that have often divided conservatives.

“They develop a more inclusive vernacular that is the rhetoric of somebody who represents everybody, not just people who think like them,” Reed said in an interview before the conference. “It’s a little bit more pleasing to the ear — more likely to quote a [Congressional Budget Office] study than Scripture, probably, but still with the principle intact.”

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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