From pulpits around the state on Sunday, Mormon bishops and other local leaders read a statement urging members to participate in next week's neighborhood political caucuses, and reaffirming the church's neutral stand toward candidates and parties. But the statement, which is traditional in general election years, had this added twist that excited Democrats: "Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in the platforms of all major political parties."
Utah Democratic Chairman Wayne Holland seized on the statement Wednesday as debate-ending proof that a person can be a good Mormon and a Democrat.
He said it "gave Utah Democrats of the LDS faith a much needed boost in morale."
"The statement from the First Presidency is a clear comfort to the many thousands of LDS Democrats in Utah," said Holland, who went on to assert that Democrats' belief in a societal responsibility to care for the poor, elderly and disabled fits well with principles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Moreover, he took a shot at the majority party, saying, "We recognize that on some issues the Republican Party steps away from certain tenets of gospel teachings."
Republican leaders and even church officials cautioned against reading too much into the statement.
The added comment "should not be overinterpreted," said one LDS official, asking that he not be named.
Utah Republican Chairman Joe Cannon said flatly that Democrats trumpeting the statement's significance are "grasping for straws."
"If it's not in desperation, it's at best an overreaction," said Cannon. "I think that there are some people - some Democrats - that believe if the [LDS] church would only say the right thing, that vast numbers of Latter-day Saints would suddenly become Democrats . . .. They'll be waiting a very long time."
But veteran political pollster Dan Jones said the statement is "very important" because it removes an anti-Democratic Party argument used by one segment of the LDS community.
"There are those who truly believe you cannot be a good Mormon and a Democrat, and I think this really dispels that notion," said Jones. "I think there are many Democrats in the Legislature and in public office at all levels that have encouraged the church to put out a statement."
Jones said he had received a number of phone calls in the wake of Sunday services, "some in jubilation and others saying, 'Why did they do this?' "
But for most church-goers - who, like voters in general, pay little attention to politics except at election time - the statement was probably little noticed.
One Salt Lake County bishop, who asked that his name not be used, said when he read the statement, it seemed to fly under the radar for most in the congregation. "I would say 96 percent didn't notice," he said.
But, the bishop added, those concerned about restoring balance to the state's politics, see it as marking some advance, which he described as "baby steps."
Kelly Patterson, a Brigham Young University political scientist, said the statement is significant, but no one should expect it to have any dramatic impact on the state's lopsided political makeup.
"Party identification is normally a long-standing, stable affiliation that people have. Usually, it takes something really significant to change his or her party affiliation," said Patterson.
Fewer and fewer Utahns have glanced toward the minority party in recent years. A slide in Democratic affiliation has continued steadily despite LDS general authority Marlin Jensen's public comments in 1998 signaling concern at the highest levels of church leadership of a "church party."
Democrats at the time hailed Jensen's remarks as "an earthshaker," that might begin a reversal of the party's decline in Utah.
Patterson said BYU exit polls show more Utahns identified themselves as Republican, or Republican-leaning, in the last election than at any time since the polling began nearly a quarter-century ago. In the 2004 survey, 61 percent claimed Republican affiliation, and just 24 percent identified themselves as Democrats.
Jones' polling uses different numbers and methods to find a similar widening gap. He says the roughly 15 percent of people claiming Democratic affiliation in his polls is the lowest since he began sampling public opinion in 1959.