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(Reuters) Vice President Joe Biden defended Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney over his Mormon faith on Friday, saying it was "outrageous" for anyone to suggest he should not be president because of his religion.
With a new Reuters/Ipsos poll showing President Barack Obama facing a tough fight for re-election next year if Romney is the Republican nominee, Biden acknowledged the former Massachusetts governor "may very well be our opponent."
Biden weighed in on the issue of Romney's Mormonism after a controversy over an evangelical Texas pastor's comments last month. The Democratic vice president also referred to opinion polls that have shown concern among some voters about Romney's faith.
"I find it preposterous that in 2011 we're debating whether or not a man is qualified or worthy of your vote based on whether or not his religion ... is a disqualifying provision," Biden told an audience at the University of Pittsburgh.
"It is not. It is embarrassing and we should be ashamed, anyone who thinks that way," he said in a long response to a student's question about how his own religious faith affected his philosophy of government.
Biden, who is Catholic, cited the prejudice John F. Kennedy faced in his run for the presidency in 1960, which he said had "totally legitimized" Catholics for high U.S. public office.
Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, a supporter of Texas Governor Rick Perry in his bid for the 2012 Republican nomination, touched off a political firestorm in early October when he said Mormons were a cult and were not Christians.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last month showed that 66 percent of Republican primary voters felt "comfortable" with Romney's Mormon faith while 13 percent did "not feel comfortable." A Gallup poll of the broader electorate in June showed 47 percent felt comfortable with his religion while 21 percent did not.
"I think it's outrageous," Biden said about the polling data he had seen.
Romney's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon church is formally called, is one of the fastest-growing and most affluent religions. More than half of its 14.1 million members live outside the United States.
Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Vicki Allen