Romney's Mormonism Attracts More Scrutiny . . . and a Whisper Campaign

By Chris Cillizza And Shailagh Murray
Sunday, June 17, 2007

Mitt Romney's Mormonism isn't something his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination talk much about in public, but his faith appears to have stoked a whisper campaign, engineered by an Iowa staffer for Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

In an e-mail obtained by The Fix, former state representative Emma Nemecek, the southeastern Iowa field director for Brownback's presidential campaign, asked a group of Iowa Republican leaders to help her fact-check a series of statements about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including one that says: "Theologically, the only thing Christianity and the LDS church has in common is the name of Jesus Christ, and the LDS Jesus is not the same Jesus of the Christian faith."

The e-mail appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to push negative talking points on Mormonism to influence power brokers in Iowa, where Brownback and Romney are engaged in a struggle for socially conservative voters in advance of the state's Jan. 14, 2008, caucuses.

Of late, Brownback has publicly taken on Romney over the abortion issue -- insisting that Romney's conversion to an anti-abortion-rights position is more political positioning than personal evolution. (Both men spoke to the National Right to Life Convention in Kansas City, Mo., late last week.)

But Romney's faith has not been a topic of contention for Brownback -- a former Methodist who has become an evangelical Roman Catholic -- until now.

When informed of the existence of the e-mail, Brownback Iowa communications director John Rankin disavowed the tactic. "Although the forwarded e-mail did not originate from campaign staff and was not sent from a campaign account or on behalf of the campaign, it is unfortunate and regrettable that this e-mail was forwarded by someone working for the campaign, even if for fact-checking purposes on behalf of a publication," Rankin said. "This was against stated campaign policy, this will not happen again, and the staff member responsible has apologized for doing so and has been reprimanded."

Romney communications director Matt Rhoades responded: "It's unfortunate that these attacks of religious bigotry were taking place. We accept Senator Brownback's apology and his efforts at minimizing these repugnant activities within his campaign. There is just no place for these types of attacks in America today."

Practices called "dirty tricks" are nothing new in politics. As exemplified by the cases involving Willie Horton, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and phone-jamming in New Hampshire, hardball campaign tactics have become more the norm than the exception.

But, not since 1960 -- when fears that Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a Catholic, would take his marching orders from the Vatican were quietly fomented by his rivals -- have we seen a candidate's religion come under such scrutiny.

Romney cites Kennedy when asked to explain how his Mormonism fits into his overall political philosophy. At a recent Republican debate in New Hampshire, he noted that Kennedy said "he was not a Catholic running for president, he was an American running for president." Romney added: "There are some pundits out there that are hoping that I'll distance myself from my church so that that'll help me politically. And that's not going to happen."

The result? A heightening of under-the-radar attacks on the tenets of Mormonism aimed at driving up doubts among voters -- particularly the evangelicals who are a key pillar of the Republican base -- about the tenets of Romney's faith.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll reflects the trepidation many Republican voters have about Mormonism. Thirty percent said they would be less likely to support a candidate if he or she were a Mormon. Of that group, forty-nine percent said there was "no chance" they would back a Mormon for president.

Trips Down, Except Ethics Chief's

The outcry over privately funded congressional travel stirred by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal has slowed the pace, according to lawmakers' 2006 financial disclosure forms , but not for everyone.

According to PoliticalMoneyLine, a nonpartisan research group, private trips by lawmakers declined to 623 last year, from a high of 1,303 in 2001. When Democrats tightened travel rules after taking over the House in January, the decline continued, with just 164 private trips reported in the first five months of 2007.

One member who hasn't slacked off is Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), the new House ethics committee chairman, who reported reimbursements for 13 trips last year. The former prosecutor visited Jamaica and Barbados in January 2006 on visits that were spaced two days apart. According to PoliticalMoneyLine, Jones is Congress's second-most frequent traveler, logging 80 trips from 2000 to May 31, 2007. She has taken at least four additional trips this year.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) reported 17 privately funded trips in 2006 and four more through May, for a total of 83 trips since 2000. Frank's 2006 travel sponsors included several gay and lesbian organizations -- Frank is one of the few openly gay members of Congress -- as well as the New Yorker magazine. He was reimbursed $2,022 for flying to Los Angeles to appear on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher."

Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), reported five trips in 2006, including jaunts to Jamaica, Turkey and Poland that were paid for by the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan public policy forum and the top private sponsor of congressional travel. Waxman's three Aspen-funded trips were valued at nearly $23,000, according to his financial reports.

Another globe-trotting chairman is Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who heads the Homeland Security Committee. He took six trips, including one with his wife for a three-day "congressional workshop" in Naples, Fla., sponsored by the American Shipbuilding Association. Other destinations included Hawaii, Panama, Cuba and Mexico.

5 days: The Republican Party of Iowa holds its auction for space for the Ames Straw Poll on Aug. 11. In 1999, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush paid more than $40,000 to ensure that his campaign secured prime real estate. With former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona not competing in the straw poll this summer, will the price drop? And will former senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who remains undecided about Ames, take part in the auction?

36 days: The old and new media converge in Charleston, S.C., as CNN and YouTube co-sponsor a Democratic presidential debate. The hook? You can submit video questions via YouTube; the best -- or most provocative -- will make it on air.

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