The odds are fairly decent that the 2008 presidential race will produce a winner that is the first something.
The first woman to hold the office, perhaps. Or the first African-American. Could we see the first Hispanic-American take the oath.
Or maybe the first Mormon?
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney officially announced his intentions to seek the GOP nomination today. Romney, as you may know, is a Mormon and that is causing consternation among some - particularly those on the religious right whom Romney needs as he stakes out a position among the conservative wing.
The kickoff itself was not without religious controversy, as Romney - who grew up in Michigan where his dad was governor - chose the Henry Ford Museum as the backdrop for his announcement. The move did not sit to well with some Jewish groups who were upset by Romney's decision to honor Ford, a staunch anti-Semite.
USA Today ran a front page story today about Romney and how his religion may affect his bid. The story, in addition to dispelling some myths about Mormonism and outlining what Mormons DO believe in, contains a poll which measures voters' attitudes on race, sex and religion as they pertain to the presidency. While only 5% of those polled said they would not vote for an African-American nominated by their party, and 11% felt that way about a woman, some 24% said would not vote for a Mormon candidate nominated by their party if they were otherwise well-qualified.
Twenty-four percent is a big piece of the electorate to be off-limits to any one candidate. Other recent polls show similar numbers, and back in December an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that a startling 53% said they would have "some reservations" or be "very uncomfortable" about voting for a Mormon for president.
The American Family News Network, which describes itself as a national Christian news service based in Tupelo, Missississippi earlier this month did a "flash" online poll on its Web site One News Now to assess its readers' opinions about Romney, his religion and the presidency. The question: Should Mitt Romney's Mormon beliefs concern Christian voters? About 20% said "absolutely," they should, while 30% said "possibly" and 49% said "not at all."
So, from that one unscientific poll, it would appear Romney's "Mormon problem" as some on the right have referred to it, is no larger among evangelicals than among the rest of Americans.
Nonetheless, some of Romney's supporters have urged him to meet with evangelical leaders, much as John F. Kennedy did in 1960, to dispell concerns, held then with Kennedy and now with Romney, that the presidential candidate will be doing his church's bidding if he wins the White House. Of course in 1960, 25% of the country was Catholic, so Kennedy's faith was not as much a mystery as is Romney's.
While certainly a concern for many, Romney's Mormon heritage may be much less of concern than his perceived flip-floppery - for the religious right and other voters who don't like candidates who twist with the political winds.
We have written exhaustively (here, here and here) in the past about Romney's "evolved" positions on gay marriage and abortion, and it is his past views on these issues that may be creating his biggest problems with social conservatives.
Religious conservatives interviewed for an article published today by the Washington Post seemed to back up that notion.
GOP Bloggers, another conservative Web site that is decidedly more political than religious in content, is in the midst of its February presidential straw poll, and Romney has taken a decided southward turn since January. Giluiani leads the poll at 35%, followed by Newt Gingrich at 25% and Mitt Romney at 15%. In the same poll in January, Romney was out in front at 28%, with Gingrich at 24% and Giuliani at 21%.
Romney is slumping in the scientific polls recently as well, often not getting into the double digits, and nearly always well behind John McCain and Giuliani. Today's USA Today poll has the former Massachusetts governor at just 5%, behind Giuliani (40%), McCain (24%) and Newt Gingrich (9%).
Despite the low numbers, the money is there for Romney, and he's gotten his share of big-name endorsements and staff.
Still, with all of the negatives, one wonders just how far down the road Romney will get.