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KIM LAWTON, correspondent: During this week’s debate, Mitt Romney said voters should not select candidates on the basis of their faith.
MITT ROMNEY (Presidential Candidate): That idea, that we choose people based upon their religion for public office, is what I find to be most troubling, because the founders of this country went to great length to make sure, and even put it in the Constitution, that we would not choose people who represent us in government based upon their religion.
LAWTON: Romney was responding to recent remarks by Dallas evangelical megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, who told reporters he believed that Romney, as a Mormon, is part of a “theological cult” that is not Christian. At the Values Voter Summit earlier this month, Jeffress introduced Rick Perry, referring to his evangelical faith.
REV. ROBERT JEFFRESS (First Baptist Church of Dallas): Do we want a candidate who is a good moral person, or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?
LAWTON: Jeffress’ comments stirred controversy, even among other religious conservatives.
WILLIAM BENNETT (Conservative Commentator): Pastor Jeffress, do not give voice to bigotry. Do not give voice to bigotry.
LAWTON: Romney’s Mormon faith was also an issue in the last presidential campaign, prompting his 2007 speech saying that while he will be true to his beliefs, they would not dictate his presidency. It’s an issue of particular concern to many evangelical voters. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, almost 60 percent of white evangelicals believe that Mormonism is not a Christian religion. Although Romney does have some high-profile evangelical supporters, it appears he still hasn’t caught on at the evangelical grassroots. But neither has Perry, who has been openly touting his evangelical faith, so much so that Perry’s wife told supporters she feels he’s come under unfair attack because of his beliefs. Meanwhile, Herman Cain, who describes himself as a conservative Christian, is also making a play for evangelical voters with several recent faith-based stops, including a book signing at the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.
Evangelicals are a key GOP constituency, especially in the primary season. In 2008, 44 percent of all Republican presidential primary voters were self-identified evangelicals, with even higher percentages in several early voting states. This time around, evangelicals are still undecided. At the Values Voter Summit, Ron Paul won the straw poll, followed by Cain and Rick Santorum. Perry and Michele Bachmann tied for fourth. Romney came in sixth.
I’m Kim Lawton reporting.