Washington • With Rick Santorum’s exit from the White House race, Mitt Romney stands on the cusp of history as the first Mormon to appear at the top of a major party ticket in a general presidential election.
Romney, a Brigham Young University-educated, LDS-family scion and beloved Utah figure, is now the inevitable Republican nominee and will take on President Barack Obama this fall.
The news is sure to bring a surge of excitement unseen in the Beehive State since Romney led the triumphant 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and helped usher Utah onto the world stage.
“Romney has family here, he’s lived here, he’s worked here, he went to school here,” says Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who has campaigned this year with the former Massachusetts governor. “It feels like he’s one of us.”
Romney is one of at least seven Latter-day Saints to attempt a presidential bid — others, including former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman this year and church founder Joseph Smith in 1844, fell short — and will become the first Mormon to carry the banner of a major party in a general election.
Many Latter-day Saints feel connected to Romney, says Darius Gray, former head of the Genesis Group, a support organization for black Mormons, and others will believe that “Mormonism has arrived.”
For so long, Latter-day Saints have had a “sense of being the underdog, due to our history and persecution we’ve experienced in our 182-year history,” Gray said. “For some, [Romney’s nomination] will be a kind of vindication. But with it will come great scrutiny about who we are as a people.”
Gray’s advice to Mormons: Don’t overreact to questions about the faith’s past and its present.
“We should not be thin-skinned,” he said. “It will behoove all of us at all levels to be prepared to answer well and fully questions that are bound to arise.”
Regardless of the fallout, Gray looks forward to “an interesting confrontation between visions of the future — that of Brother Romney and that of President Obama.”
Romney’s quest for the Oval Office already has seen rumblings of anti-Mormon sentiment carry over to the ballot box. He lost much of the evangelical-dominated South. Some prominent pastors have dismissed Mormonism as a cult.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is likely to see more scrutiny than it did during the Olympics — now through a political lens.
Ben Park, an LDS doctoral student at the University of Cambridge in England, said Mormons will face a host of new perspectives.
“Prior to this,” Park writes in an email, “it’s only been evangelicals and the religious right. … This will be the first time they confront thoughtful secular criticisms — the kind that can’t be shrugged off as anti-Mormon bigotry and will actually cause reflection.”
That may prompt a bit of a pause with some of the LDS faithful, who find themselves hopeful for a candidate but also wary of the spotlight.
“There is a curious mixture of excitement and apprehension [about Romney’s likely nomination] among Mormons, whatever their political persuasion,” says LDS writer and blogger Jana Riess in Cincinnati. “We are hyperaware of our minority status in America and concerned that increased public scrutiny of our faith will prove painful.”
However faith surfaces in the fall campaign — Obama’s team has said Romney’s Mormonism will be off-limits despite GOP allegations that it won’t be — the candidate’s newfound stature pushes the LDS faith into a new political stratosphere.
Romney’s nomination is “the outcome of the many changes to Mormonism since World War II,” says Jan Shipps, a respected historian of American religions. “It is a key episode in the life of the Utah-based faith.”
That’s true even for non-Romney supporters.
State Sen. Ben McAdams, a Salt Lake City Democrat and devout Mormon, concedes having an LDS presidential nominee is an exciting prospect that will create national exposure for the church.
“I’ve long maintained that as America gets to know my faith, they’ll find a lot of virtue and value in who we are, and we have a lot in common with the American people, and we have a lot to bring to the table,” McAdams says. “As Americans will learn during the course of this campaign, Mormons are mainstream America.”
McAdams says he wants a Mormon as president — though he doesn’t want Romney to be that Mormon.
Nationally, nine in 10 Mormons (86 percent) in the GOP-dominated faith give Romney positive marks, according to a poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life earlier this year. Even 62 percent of LDS Democrats have a favorable view of their fellow believer.
Romney, whose son Josh lives in Millcreek and who until a few years ago owned a home near Deer Valley, still needs to win 483 delegates to grasp the 1,144 needed to seal the GOP nomination. But the only remaining Republicans in the race, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, have acknowledged that Romney’s nomination is certain.
Romney’s strong Utah ties translate into a long line of friends who are ecstatic to see someone they know take the Republican mantle.
“Mitt’s given so much to Utah with his support of the Olympics,” says Utah developer Kem Gardner, who has been close with Romney since 1985. “And I think people are excited to see him become the president. We know Mitt, and he knows us.”
Shipps, who is writing about post-World War II Mormonism, is now waiting to see how the presidential showdown ends.
“I can’t finish my book,” she said, “until this plays out.”
Robert Gehrke contributed to this story.