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Evangelicals' Complicated Relationship with Romney and Gingrich


The economy remains the most prominent issue ahead of the primary season as social issues play a less prominent role. The most salient personal split has been between Mitt Romney, an executive-turned-politician who is Mormon, and Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House.

While Romney has his base of support, Gingrich has been taking off in the polls. Christian conservatives appear more comfortable with a thrice-married Lutheran-turned-Baptist-turned-Catholic than a Mormon candidate who has been married for over four decades.

Gingrich's political director in Iowa resigned after less than a week on the job. Craig Bergman's resignation came after the website The Iowa Republican reported that Bergman called Mormonism a cult, just one day before he joined Gingrich's campaign. 

Speaking as part of a focus group, Bergman said, "A lot of the evangelicals believe God would give us four more years of Obama just for the opportunity to expose the cult of Mormon…There's a thousand pastors ready to do that."

A century ago, the Senate debated whether to allow Reed Smoot to represent Utah. Smoot was not a polygamist, but there were still questions raised about the issue. Senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania took to the floor of the Senate, glared at his colleagues with less-than-chaste reputations, and delivered one of the best retorts in Senate history.

"As for me," Penrose said, "I would rather have seated beside me in this chamber a 'polygamist' who doesn't 'polyg-' than a 'monogamist' who doesn't 'monag-'."

In a December poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, evangelical Republican voters remain much more opposed to Romney than others in the GOP. Only 10 percent of evangelical Republicans support Romney, whereas nearly three times as many other Republican Christians do. 35 percent of evangelicals say there is "no chance" they would vote for Romney, compared to only 21 percent of other Christians.

Romney's critics say he supported an individual mandate for health insurance, went on record against pro-life positions, and increased taxes. His current stands are seen by opponents as flip-flopping. Critics of Gingrich say he helped originate the idea of an individual mandate for health insurance, went on record recently saying life does not begin at conception, and supported George H.W. Bush's tax increase during negotiations before he opposed them.

According to Pew, 35 percent of evangelicals say they support Gingrich. Another 37 percent say there is "a chance" they would vote for him in the primary. Just 18 percent said there was "no chance" of voting for him. The results for other Republican candidates (other than Romney) were similar.

Gingrich often tells the story of America as one in which the nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. He calls out "radical Islam" and liberal judges as threats to this foundation.

Neither candidate has an organized presence in Iowa. Both Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are picking up endorsements and have built a network of supporters in the state. As history shows, people might respond one way on a poll but mark an entirely different choice when it comes time to vote. 

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