Mormon Base a Mixed Blessing for Romney

Mitt Romney leads Republican presidential candidates in money raised, thanks in part to a
Mitt Romney leads Republican presidential candidates in money raised, thanks in part to a "natural network" of Mormon supporters. (By Darren Hauck -- Getty Images)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

It is the rare presidential candidate who comes to Idaho to raise money, but there was Mitt Romney last month, packing more than 100 people, at up to $2,300 a head, into the Crystal Ballroom in Boise.

"Nearly every seat was filled. Just about everybody that's anybody was there," said Grant Ipsen, a former Idaho state legislator. "I don't think I'd ever attended another fundraiser for a federal candidate in Idaho."

There was no great mystery why Romney was in town. The former Massachusetts governor is a Mormon, as are about one-quarter of Idaho residents, including Ipsen and many others who turned out for the lunchtime event. The fundraiser was bracketed by two others in the Mountain West: one in Las Vegas and another outside Phoenix. At both of those events, Mormons made up at least half the crowd, organizers said. Altogether, the two-day swing brought in well over $1 million for Romney.

As he vies for a place in the top tier of contenders for the Republican nomination, Romney is reaping enormous benefits from being part of a growing religion that has traditionally emphasized civic engagement and mutual support. Mormons are fueling his strong fundraising operation, which this week reported raising $21 million, the most of any Republican candidate. And they are laying the foundation for a potent grass-roots network -- including a cadre of young church members experienced in door-to-door missions who say they are looking forward to hitting the streets for him.

"When Mormons get mobilized, they're like dry kindling. You drop a match and get impressive results quickly," said University of Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell, who is Mormon. "It's almost a unique group in the way in which it's organized at the local level and the channels through which mobilization can occur."

But the intensity of this support has a potential downside as Romney tries to establish an identity separate from a religion still regarded warily by many Americans -- a quarter of whom, polls suggest, do not want a Mormon president.

Romney's fellow Mormons also find themselves in a bind. In dozens of interviews, Mormons across the country said they are excited by Romney's candidacy and eager to do what they can for him, just like members of other religious or ethnic groups with favorite-son candidates. Yet they are also hesitant to state their support too strongly, to avoid provoking anti-Mormon bias or violating church rules against politicking inside church walls.

"I know a lot of people who will support him just because he's a Mormon -- and I know a lot of other people who are edgy about that," said Paul Starita, a Minnesota native attending the church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Many Mormons backing Romney recognize the risks but say it would be wrong to suppress their solidarity. Heather Johnson, a mother of three transplanted from Utah to North Carolina, started a "Moms4Mitt" Web site and hopes to campaign for him in South Carolina, a key early state in the primary process. That will be possible, she notes, only because her Mormon "brothers and sisters" will put her up, and help watch her kids, wherever she goes.

"You cannot deny that there is a network in the church, a natural network," she said. "Some people make out like it's a conspiracy, but it's a natural networking system. It's just the way our church is set up."

The dilemma faced by Romney and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, as the church is known, recalls in some ways what John F. Kennedy faced running as a Roman Catholic in 1960. Among the factors that make this situation different, say political scientists, is that Mormons are almost unmatched in their cohesiveness and capacity for unified action.

Campaign spokesman Kevin Madden said Romney welcomes the backing he is receiving from Mormons, which he compared to the help that other candidates have received from their ethnic or religious roots, such as Michael Dukakis's support from fellow Greek Americans in 1988. But Madden said Mormon support makes up only one element of Romney's base.

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