SALT LAKE CITY, Utah Three days before "Super Tuesday" voting that could decide the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney detoured from the campaign trail on Saturday to attend the funeral of Mormon church leader Gordon Hinckley.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who would be the first Mormon president, is battling to stay in the race against front-runner Arizona Sen. John McCain. Tuesday's Republican voting in 21 states -- the biggest single day in the contests to choose Republican and Democratic candidates for the November election -- could be the crucial showdown.
While McCain was traversing southern states to try to build on his momentum heading into the coast-to-coast nominating contests, Romney was in Utah to attend the Mormon leader's funeral, renewing focus on his faith that has been seen as a deterrent among some evangelical voters.
Hinckley, who was considered by Mormons to be a living prophet, had been the 15th President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, since March 1995. He died last Sunday at the age of 97.
Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's traveling press secretary, said Romney had spent the morning doing interviews with TV stations in Super Tuesday states such as Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee and Georgia, but he had no public events scheduled in Utah.
"He's not doing any politicking. He's here on a personal visit to attend the funeral of Gordan Hinckley," he said.
Fehrnstrom brushed off questions about the sensitivity of drawing attention to Romney's Mormon faith, which some Americans view with skepticism. The church has spent decades trying to counter criticism that it is a cult and a threat to Christianity.
"The governor is proud of his faith," Fehrnstrom said. "This is something he wanted to do ... After the funeral is over we'll get back to the campaign trail."
APPEALING TO CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS
With rival White House hopeful Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, trailing a distant third in national polls, picking up support from conservative Christians could be critical to Romney's success -- but that will involve allaying concerns of some over his Mormonism.
Founded in 1830, the once-isolated group based in Salt Lake City, is one of the fastest-growing and most affluent religions, with an estimated $25 billion in assets in 1999 and more than $5 billion in annual income. More than half of its 12.9 million members live outside the United States.
The church bans alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee. It maintains there is no eternal hell, the dead can be baptized and that God speaks through living apostles and prophets such as Hinckley. Although Mormons revere Christ as their savior and consider themselves devout Christians, they reject the unified Trinity and teach that God has a body of flesh.
In December, Romney gave a speech seeking to reassure voters who were wary of his religion, and vowed that the Mormon church would not run the White House if he were elected.
In that speech, Romney cast himself in the role of the late President John F. Kennedy, who addressed Americans about his Catholic religion in 1960 and went on to win the presidency that year.
About 20,000 people attended the service for Hinckley, who The Salt Lake Tribune in an editorial said had been instrumental in softening the perception of Mormonism as "an oddity on the religious and cultural landscape of the United States."
Romney said he met Hinckley several times when he was hired to turn around the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, and again when he was considering a White House run.
"With a twinkle in his eye he made the comment... 'If you decide to run and you win it will be a great experience. If you run and lose it will also be a great experience," Romney told reporters on Friday at a rally in Denver.
(Additional reporting by James Nelson, editing by Vicki Allen)
(For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at http:/blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)