BOSTON (Reuters) - Republican Mitt Romney has remade himself in a second run for president, with a leaner campaign apparatus and a message focused with laser-like precision on the nation’s economic problems.
But the “Mormon question” still remains for the former Massachusetts governor: are Americans ready to put a Mormon in the White House?
Surveys suggest American voters are more accepting of the idea now than when Romney staged his first presidential run in 2008. But at the margins, many remain suspicious of Mormons.
A Quinnipiac University poll this week found voters less comfortable with the idea of a Mormon president than having a leader of any religion other than a Muslim, or an atheist.
“The fact that less than half of voters have a favorable view of the religion is likely to be a political issue that Governor Romney ... will have to deal with,” said Peter Brown of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Connecticut.
Romney has closer ties to Mormonism than other Mormons in U.S. politics, such as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Jon Huntsman, his possible Republican rival for the party’s presidential nomination.
A fifth-generation member of the faith whose forebears were involved in the religion from the mid-1850s, Romney is a former lay bishop of Massachusetts’ temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But Romney, whose campaign message on jobs is gaining some traction with voters, is making an attempt to avoid being defined by religion.
“I separate quite distinctly matters of personal faith from the leadership one has in a political sense,” the Republican said in an interview on CNN this week.
“You don’t begin to apply the doctrines of a religion to responsibility for guiding a nation or guiding a state.”
Many evangelical Christians, who typically back Republican candidates, have been taught that Mormonism is a cult with a heretical understanding of scripture and doctrine. The church is often seen as secretive, with many of its rituals hidden to outsiders.
A Pew Research Center poll this month showed that although more than two-thirds of Americans deemed Mormonism of little importance in their vote, 25 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate.
Among white evangelicals the negative response jumped to 34 percent, and among those, 63 percent said there would be no chance that they would vote for Romney -- a sizable hurdle in elections sometimes decided by a handful of votes.
Distrust Christian evangelicals harbor against Mormons contributed to Romney’s loss in the early caucus state of Iowa in 2008, said John Green, political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio.
“Evangelicals will say ‘Mormons aren’t really Christians,'” Green said. “We saw some opposition to Romney because of his Mormonism. It was particularly strong among evangelicals.”
The issue of religion also plays out in the gender of voters. In Quinnipiac’s poll, only 55 percent of women were comfortable with the idea of a Mormon president, against 64 percent of men.
“Although women are sometimes thought to be more tolerant than are men, when it comes to Mormonism, the opposite is true,” said Quinnipiac’s Brown.
During his previous campaign Romney made an attempt to address questions about his faith in a speech in Texas, much as Catholic contender John F. Kennedy did in September 1960 during his run to the White House.
But Romney’s 2007 “Faith in America” speech mentioned Mormonism just once, suggesting to some critics that the candidate was uncomfortable addressing the topic.
As his 2012 bid shifts into high gear, Romney has been more adroit in avoiding becoming defined by religion.
“We go to different churches or maybe don’t go to church so much,” he said in his campaign launch speech in New Hampshire. On CNN he said he was “not a spokesman” for Mormonism.
Romney increasingly is seen as the Republican front-runner to take on President Barack Obama despite worries about his positions on healthcare and other issues.
A recent Public Policy Polling survey of Republican voters in conservative South Carolina, where he had been expected to struggle, put Romney on top with 27 percent support.
That completed a round of polling in four key early primary states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida -- that burnished his front-runner status.
Ultimately, the desire to oust Obama could push the Mormon question to the margins, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire survey center.
“Will Republicans get out and vote for Romney? I don’t know. But there’s a lot of animosity toward Obama,” he said.
Editing by Jackie Frank