The press seems downright excited at the prospect of the first female president.

The idea of the first black president has journalists all but giddy.

But the first Mormon president? Whoa! That's a different matter.

The skeptical tone toward Mitt Romney's announcement has been impossible to miss. And the major reason is his religion.

"Will Mormon faith hurt bid for White House?" said USA Today's front-page headline on the day that the former Massachusetts governor announced.

Try to imagine a headline that said, "Will Jewish faith hurt bid for White House?"

Obviously, reporters are raising the issue because of polls showing that a chunk of the public wouldn't vote for a Mormon commander-in-chief--24 percent in a USA Today poll yesterday. But I believe the passive acceptance of this political "fact"--as opposed to, say, questioning opposition to gay marriage or civil unions--reflects a mindset that Mormonism is kind of weird and therefore okay to treat as a fringe movement.

Most voters don't know that much about Mitt Romney. If they become comfortable with him, the abstract concerns they have about his religion will probably begin to fade, just as Jack Kennedy put to rest anxieties about his Catholicism.

Putting to rest concerns about his political conversion -- from pro-choice to anti-abortion, from a bigger backer of gay rights than Ted Kennedy to wherever he stands now -- may be more difficult. And the fact that Romney is trying to airbrush his Massachusetts tenure from his resume -- by announcing in Michigan, where his father was governor -- is stranger to me than his religion.

Here's that USA Today{vbar}http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2007-02-12-romney-cover_x.htm piece, which says that Romney's religion "may be less than a blessing . . .

"In a diverse 2008 presidential field that includes a woman and an African-American on the Democratic side, polls show being Mormon is a handicap. In a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, 72% say they would vote for a qualified nominee who is Mormon. That compares with 94% for a black nominee and 88% for a female nominee . . .

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the official name of the Mormon church, has an unusual theology and a past scarred by racism and polygamy. A national political race that conveys its focus on family life and traditional values could improve its image."

The USA poll has Rudy at 40, McCain at 24, Newt at 9 and Romney at 5. On the Democratic side, Hillary 40, Barack 21, Gore 14 and Edwards 13.

Time's Karen Tumulty{vbar}http://time-blog.com/swampland/2007/02/romney_announces.html says Romney has strengths, but circles back to the M-word:

"The fact is, Romney has a lot going for him in a Republican primary race, not much of which was on display in this announcement. Where he won't light any fires reading a speech, he can be quite compelling in unscripted settings. Much of the GOP establishment is lining up behind him, if only because he isn't John McCain. The money is rolling in nicely. And there is not a more camera-ready family in politics.

"The biggest questions are whether his Mormon faith is a deal-breaker with evangelicals, and more broadly, whether the party's socially conservative base will believe that his relatively recent moves to the right on social issues are sincere. There was a sign of things to come for Romney in a Monday night salvo from the Brownback campaign, which put out a timeline of the three different positions that Romney has had on abortion and declared: Mitt Romney's flip flops are enough to make John Kerry blush."

Would you use this blind quote, as New York{vbar}http://nymag.com/news/politics/powergrid/27841/ magazine did?

" 'Look, let's be honest, Mormons are weird,' says a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate from Massachusetts, voicing a view widely shared by secularists and Evangelicals alike."

I sure wouldn't.

Roger Simon{vbar}http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0207/2737.html explains why Romney can win despite suspicions about his social views:

"Mitt Romney is so good he is almost too good.

"Candidates want people to come away from their events thinking 'presidential,' not 'slick.'

"But Romney is so polished and looks so much like a president would look if television picked our presidents (and it does) that sometimes you have to ask yourself if you are watching the real deal or a careful construction.

"Romney has chiseled-out-of-granite features, a full, dark head of hair going a distinguished gray at the temples, and a barrel chest. On the morning that he announced for president, I bumped into him in the lounge of the Marriott and up close he is almost overpowering. He radiates vigor . . .

"He changed his mind on abortion when he was 57, just about the same time he decided to run for president. What benefits Romney is that all three top Republicans -- McCain, Romney and Rudy Giuliani -- have positions that social and religious conservatives are not happy with.

"The power that social and religious conservatives have within the Republican Party is sometimes exaggerated. They were not that thrilled with George W. Bush when he first ran for president and refused to back an amendment banning abortion. Nor were they thrilled with his father, George H.W. Bush, who once referred to the far right wing of his party as the 'extra-chromosome set'. . . Both men ran in the Republican primaries against candidates far more conservative than they were and both won."

The Boston Herald{vbar}http://news.bostonherald.com/editorial/view.bg?articleid=182832&srvc=home is mighty ticked off at the ex-governor for ignoring the state he just ran for four years:

"Mitt Romney is trying to play cute with Republican primary voters -- and anyone else who might look skeptically upon the conservative credentials of a Massachusetts governor. And who knows, it may pay off. His name recognition needs work, and surely there are some voters out there today talking about that good-looking Michigan governor who's running for president. But he won't get too far by treating voters as if they're stupid."

The Weekly Standard{vbar}http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/005/672kwvro.asp?pg=2 runs a two-year-old Terry Eastland piece on the religion factor:

"Apparently some people so dislike Mormonism, or find it so odd, that they wouldn't vote for a Mormon. You can speculate about why that is. Maybe it's the hierarchical character of the church--it's administered top-down from Salt Lake City by the men who comprise the General Authorities, the First Presidency (encompassing the president and his first counselor and second counselor), and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Or maybe it's the church's secrecy. The General Authorities disclose little about the operations or finances of the nation's richest religion per capita. And Mormon temples, where weddings and other ceremonies, including proxy baptisms, are performed, are closed to non-Mormons. Then there's polygamy, introduced by Joseph Smith (who had 49 wives) and practiced until, a century ago, the church finally realized that the federal government would not tolerate it. And there's church and state: Some people fear that, deep down, Mormons want to gain control of the government and turn the United States into their kingdom of God.

"Some of those objections might fade if voters got to know a Mormon of compelling political credentials, and came to feel comfortable with him. Other objections might have to be answered directly. In regard to polygamy, for example, it would be unfair to hang that history around the neck of Romney, the husband of one and only one wife since their marriage 36 years ago."

Andrew Sullivan{vbar}http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2007/02/romneys_double_.html sees Romney as a bundle of contradictions:

"How can a candidate oppose a federal abortion amendment while supporting a federal marriage amendment? The Independent Gay Forum reproduces fresh Romney quotes on this question. Jon Rauch sums it up:

"So it's official: Romney favors a constitutional amendment to prevent gay couples from marrying, but not to prevent what most pro-lifers regard as infanticide. Not even Marx (Groucho) could find a consistent principle here, unless political expediency counts.

"That last sentence could apply to Romney's entire campaign, I'm afraid."

I noted a couple of days ago that Bush seemed to have dropped from sight. The Post said yesterday that he was concentrating on small-time issues like childhood obesity. So . . . it's time for a news conference.

"President Bush said Wednesday that he was certain that factions within the Iranian government had supplied Shiite militants in Iraq with deadly roadside bombs that had killed American troops," the New York Times{vbar}http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/15/world/middleeast/15prexy.html?hp&ex=1171515600&en=8bfa0fe1c806a923&ei=5094&partner=homepage reports. "But he said he did not know whether Iran's highest officials had directed the attacks.

"Mr. Bush's remarks amounted to his most specific accusation to date that Iran was undermining security in Iraq. They appeared to be part of a concerted effort by the White House to present a clearer, more direct case that Iran was supplying the potent weapons -- and to push back against criticism that the intelligence used in reaching the conclusions was not credible."

I'll say this--the reporters, having been burned on WMD, were openly skeptical.

The Chicago Tribune{vbar}http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-070214bush,1,3617189.story?coll=chi-news-hed goes with a surge lead: "President Bush, facing a congressional vote of protest over his escalation of military force in Iraq, confronted a growing challenge to his presidency with complaints Wednesday that members of Congress are pressing for a symbolic vote without allowing his new strategy a chance to restore security inside Iraq."

Is this what's called walking-around money?

"Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign reached a deal to pay a key South Carolina black leader's consulting firm more than $200,000 just days before he agreed to endorse her run for president, it was revealed yesterday," the New York Post{vbar}http://www.nypost.com/seven/02152007/news/nationalnews/shocking_200g_hill_deal_nationalnews_maggie_haberman.htm says.

"The arrangement involves South Carolina state Sen. Darrell Jackson, a well-connected African-American leader and pastor whose support is coveted by national campaigns.

"Jackson confirmed to The Post yesterday that his public-relations firm struck a deal with the Clinton campaign just days ago for a contract worth up to $10,000 a month through the 2008 elections."

At National Review, David Freddoso{vbar}http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=YWFmYTc2MzEzM2U2OTQ3NjVkNTRjMjEyOWJlMTVjYzg= says Giuliani will lose for reasons having nothing to do with abortion or gay rights:

"The common wisdom is that most Republican voters know nothing of Rudy's social liberalism, and so his support will dwindle as they learn more. But this may prove wrong. Knowledgeable folks on the Right, disheartened by a presidential field that lacks viable, trustworthy conservatives, are talking themselves into supporting the man who earned the title of 'America's Mayor' after his performance on 9/11. "The argument is easier to make than it might seem at first. Rudy's transgressions, conservatives can tell themselves, are smaller than they appear, particularly considering the shortcomings of the other candidates. Even if he is pro-choice on abortion, Giuliani has said that he would appoint the same kind of justices as President Bush has -- the John Roberts variety, likely to overturn Roe v. Wade . . .

"If Giuliani's stances on babies, guns, and gay marriage do not sink him in the Republican primaries, he will probably suffer in a general election campaign from the fact that there is so much evidence in the public record that he is a total jerk.

"Yes, that's right. Most Americans love Rudy, but it's not just because they don't know where he stands on issues. It's also because they know nothing of his pre-9/11 self, and the more they learn, the less attractive they will probably find him.

"By September 10, 2001, New Yorkers were weary of their mayor and longed for an end to his administration, even as they enjoyed the dog-poop-less sidewalks, the safe subway platforms, the squeegee-free street corners and the low murder rate they all knew he had brought about. It understates the case to say that a massive terror attack saved Giuliani's political career -- it would be more accurate to say that nothing short of 9/11 could have saved it."

If you missed my story on the 1993 memo that talks about Giuliani's "weirdness factor," here it is{vbar}http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/13/AR2007021301225.html.

The left continues to be unhappy with Hillary's refusal to renounce her pro-war vote. Arianna Huffington{vbar}http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/team-hillarys-latest-exc_b_41155.html pounces on a new rhetorical twist:

"Team Hillary's attempt to out-weasel John Kerry's legendary 'I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it' continues in earnest.

"Its latest explanation/rationalization? 9/11 made her do it! That's right, the Clinton camp is now reading out of the Bush administration's wing-and-a-prayer book."

She quotes James Carville on CNN on why other Democrats voted against authorizing the war: " 'But they weren't from New York,' he said. 'Their state wasn't hit. They didn't have to deal with the grief of these 3,000 people.'

"As if the war in Iraq had anything to do with 9/11. And it's not just Carville dishing out this nonsense. In an interview last month, Hillary herself offered the same excuse, telling the AP: 'As a senator from New York, I lived through 9/11 and am still dealing with the aftereffects.' Call it PTJS (Post Traumatic Justification Syndrome)."

The two San Francisco Chronicle{vbar}http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/02/14/BAGPRO4RVR3.DTL reporters who faced jail time in the baseball steroids case are now off the hook:

"A lawyer in the BALCO steroids case admitted today that he was the source of grand jury transcripts of testimony by Barry Bonds and other athletes quoted in articles by two Chronicle reporters, and federal lawyers said they would no longer seek prison time for the journalists for refusing to disclose their source.

"The lawyer, Troy Ellerman, 44, who formerly represented the founder and another official of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, agreed to plead guilty to four charges of disclosing the confidential transcripts in violation of a federal judge's order. The plea agreement calls or a prison sentence of up to two years and a $250,000 fine.

"In his plea agreement, Ellerman admitted allowing a Chronicle reporter, Mark Fainaru-Wada, to take verbatim notes of the testimony by Bonds, fellow baseball players Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, and sprinter Tim Montgomery in the lawyer's Sacramento office in June and November 2004."

A new (or rather, old) sex scandal on the Hill, tied to defense contractor Brent Wilkes and noted by TPM Muckraker{vbar}http://www.tpmmuckraker.com/archives/002565.php:

"OK, you knew they'd make an appearance.

"Among the staggering laundry list of bribes of ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) listed in the second indictment issued today, there's one that's bound to get a lot of ink.

"The indictment alleges that, during a trip to Hawaii, Wilkes paid for a prostitute for Cunningham."

Former Bush campaign aide Patrick Ruffini{vbar}http://www.patrickruffini.com/2007/02/11/the-bias-towards-democrat-primaries/ says the Dems are getting too much press:

"This is a way for the media to show its bias without being ideological. They will simply deign Hillary vs. Obama vs. Edwards to be more newsworthy, and go from there. This is because the media approaches Democratic primaries more as participants than as spectators . . .

"Don't be surprised to see these storylines emerge. First, the Democrats will be seen as generating more grassroots energy than the Republicans, whose voters will be framed as subdued and unmotivated. The story on Obama's crowds is just the beginning. The media will overstate Democratic enthusiasm because they think Democratic primaries are more interesting.

"And second: The Democratic nominee will be portrayed as the heroic victor in an epic saga that pitted the 'first' woman and minority candidates against each other, with a proven smooth-talker thrown in the mix."

Hmmm. Could it have anything to do with the fact that the GOP's top two, McCain and Giuliani, still aren't declared candidates?