Mitt Romney is on track to get the Republican nomination for president the same way his 2008 rival John McCain did. The former Massachusetts governor was the runner-up in the last open primary and is not facing anyone strong enough to knock him out of his place in line. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found 30 percent of likely GOP voters would back Romney. Second, at 14 percent, was Sarah Palin, who is: a) not yet running, and b) not yet literate.
This is in spite of party purists' fury over Romney's record of helping people and running a sensible government in Massachusetts. He, most notoriously, implemented a universal health care program, but also signed an assault weapons ban, supported stem cell research and conceded the right to an abortion.
If conservatives walk away from Romney's campaign, it's hard to see him charming over supporters from elsewhere. A born blue-blood with a pre-politics career in the corporate/finance world, the always-chipper Romney acts like an android programmed to seem human enough to be elected to office. He's 90-percent passable, but kinks in his programming keep cropping up. He holds economic stump speeches at places like Staples (where you apply after being laid off from your real job). He jokingly told a group of jobless voters, “I'm also unemployed,” as he runs for president on his $200 million bank account. As a cute, everyday-life incident for a Boston Globe profile, he recounted putting the family dog in a cage, tying it to a car roof and driving 12 hours until it sprayed poop down a window. He's clueless in ways that make you uncomfortable.
But the factor lying in wait to sink Romney is this: He's a Mormon.
Since its founding in the 1820s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has survived persecution by everyone from angry mobs to President James Buchanan. It became mainstream by, firstly, giving up polygamy and, secondly, creating its own mainstream, out in the remote Southwest, where it's a domineering cultural force. Its smiley followers eschew drugs, alcohol, coffee and even tea but are fond of abundant procreating, so the church is now 14 million strong.
Evangelicals, who makeup an unavoidable force in the GOP and are not known for their tolerance for religious plurality, still have a frosty view of Mormons, who have made some interesting add-ons to the tenets of Christianity.
The Obama-is-a-Muslim hoax shows the deep-seated paranoia of Americans, especially Republicans, that the president might have strange and exotic religious beliefs. Romney actually does! His church baptizes famous dead people, mandates long underwear and thinks the Second Coming will happen in Missouri.
Romney will try to deflect any mention of his religion as a personal attack, but you can choose to join or leave a church.
The LDS leadership orchestrated, in violation of the church's tax-exempt status, a massive donation drive for groups supporting Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that overturned same-sex marriage in California. The two main Prop. 8 groups got most of their out-of-state funding from Utah. If the few times Obama was in the same room as Bill Ayers amounts to a scandal, so does Romney's membership — and not-insignificant tithe — to a group with a homophobic agenda.
But the Mormon issue will probably get so mangled by Tea Party yokels in the primaries it will be toxic by the general election. And, of course, Romney will handle it awkwardly. In 2008, he ran into a grizzled old diner patron who declared, “I am one person who will not vote for a Mormon!” Proving he was on autopilot, Romney tried to shake his hand anyway.
A nation with serious religious hang ups, the United States is not ready for a Mormon president, even through Mormonism is different from mainline Christianity only in its impossibly wholesome image and a tally of small, weird things that make you go, “Huh?” Sort of like the difference between Mitt Romney and actual human beings.