COCOA, FLORIDA—In the Republican nomination contest, where evangelicals represent a broader segment of the voting population than the general election, it's widely accepted that Mitt Romney's Mormon faith could cost him. Romney's tax returns brought his faith back into the limelight when it was revealed that he does in fact tithe around 10 percent of his earnings to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as dictated by church rules.
Yet, in the weeks preceding the Iowa caucuses, I didn't run across a single Republican who had ruled out Romney on the basis of his religion—or at least no voters willing to admit as such to a reporter. The worst I would get from the Iowans was concern that other people in the general election would be hesitant to cast their ballot for a Mormon, though they themselves were of course not influenced by that factor.
I arrived in Florida this week to cover the last few days of the Sunshine State's primary, and at the very first event I attended, one voter made no qualms about why she wouldn't be supporting Romney. "Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and therefore I have some issues with that," said Peggy Bennett, a nurse from Cocoa. We were speaking in a crowded ballroom before Newt Gingrich's big speech on space policy. When I asked her what specifically concerned her about the Mormon faith, Bennett said, "anything that adds to or takes away from what the bible says is not of God." She said she was torn between Gingrich and Rick Santorum in the primary, but did clarify that she would support Romney in the general election if he wins the nomination.
I don’t want to extrapolate too much from one random voter, but many voters in the room noted that Gingrich's tone matched evangelical interests. "From his moral standards, he pretty much thinks in the Christian and the evangelical side of things," said Pete Bell. The central Florida corridor that might decide next Tuesday's election is dotted with mega-churches featuring congregations with thousands of members who all share common convictions. In fact, the overflow parking for the Gingrich event was across the street from a small evangelical church.
This is the land of exurbs and subdivisions; despite high statewide unemployment and foreclosures there are still plenty of gaudy displays of wealth. When Romney campaigns in central Florida perhaps he can finally let loose among his fellow rich Americans. But while few voters may be as direct as Bennett on classifying their exact reason to oppose Romney, he'll need to assure many that being a Mormon doesn't threaten their evangelical faith.
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