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Walsh: Republican Party leaves Mitt in cold

Published February 10, 2008 12:43 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I almost feel sorry for Mitt Romney. He reminds me a lot of Cady, Lindsay Lohan's character in the coming-of-age flick "Mean Girls." Her wide-eyed homeschooler from faraway Africa tries to infiltrate the "Plastics" popular girls' clique with disastrous results.

In real life, Mitt's rico-suave Eastern governor, who happens to be a card-carrying member of a peculiar religion based somewhere out West, tries to infiltrate the inner sanctum of the Republican Party with equally disastrous results.

I understand Cady's desperate high school scheme to be liked. I don't understand Mitt's grown-up version.

He was supposed to be the White Horse, the Mormon politician finally able to take his faith mainstream and shatter the glass ceiling that seems to stop Latter-day Saints at the governor's office and U.S. Senate. Instead, he konked his perfectly coiffed head on the stained glass of the Bible Belt.

With Romney playing the good soldier by beating a quick retreat, Arizona Sen. John McCain has taken over the job of pandering to the Christian Right.

Of course, evangelicals' grasp on the Grand Old Party isn't the only reason for Mitt's withdrawal last week.

Voters doubted his authenticity. He seemed too slick, too quick to change his position based on the office he wanted. He was followed around by a man in a dolphin suit named Flip to the bitter end. Former Arkansas governor and would-be pastor-in-chief Mike Huckabee spoiled Iowa by luring away religious conservatives and upending Romney's yearlong strategy for victory. In desperation, he went negative, turning Huckabee and McCain into unlikely allies. And conservative talk jocks Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh rode to his rescue too late.

Still, Romney's defeat has peeled back the layers of a lingering religious bigotry as virulent as anti-semitism and closeted as racism. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in late January found that half of Americans said they would be "very uncomfortable" with a Mormon as president. That includes both Republicans and Democrats. But only Republicans have been voting for or against Romney up to this point.

Many evangelicals' disdain for Mormons goes deep. They try to keep it hidden. But Romney's run for the White House forced their prejudice into the daylight. Evangelicals' sly ugliness ranged from Huckabee's New York Times interview, when he used an "innocent voice" to throw out the not-completely-untrue statement that Mormons believe Jesus Christ and Satan were brothers, to the Westboro Baptist wingnuts' threat to protest outside LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley's funeral because, they said, Hinckley was too compassionate to gays. So, I'm wondering: Why do so many Mormons stick with a party whose most powerful modern wing comprises a bunch of religious bigots?

Some Utah Republicans seem to be waking up to the betrayal in their own party. A KSL/Deseret Morning News poll last week found many Romney faithful searching. Of those polled, 30 percent would vote for McCain, 25 percent for Barack Obama, 11 percent for Hillary Clinton and 22 percent were undecided. Just 2 percent said they would vote for Huckabee.

"We saw a nasty underside of some of the far-right Republicans," says Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a Romney insider. "If Huckabee had gotten the nomination, they'd never have seen me again."

Democrats are hoping the 2008 campaign makes singed Mormon Republicans look again at the minority party.

"For many years, Mormons felt the Republican Party was closer to their views," says Richard Davis, Utah County Democratic Party Chairman and a Brigham Young University political science professor.

"What they see now is that an evangelical was using religion against a Mormon in a presidential campaign. We're in new territory here."

It might be too much to hope that Mormon Republicans will jump their party. In the end, many Mormons still see the Democrats as the party of gay marriage, abortion and tax-and-spend.

The sting of 2008 eventually will fade. Romney's timely exit - CNN conservative analyst William Bennett called it "noble" - sets him up to run again in 2012. And if he does, Romney and his Mormon following will try to crack the conservative clique all over again.

Call it "Mean Boys II."

walsh@sltrib.com