A visit this weekend to the Rev. Pat Robertson's school illustrates the challenge for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as he courts the all-important evangelical vote.
The former Massachusetts governor gave the commencement address Saturday at Robertson's Regent University in Virginia, a golden opportunity to reach core GOP voters.
Yet the many people who seek spiritual guidance from Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and its Web site will find Romney's Mormon faith listed as a cult.
The candidate and his Christian supporters have been working hard to overcome evangelical antipathy toward the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose 19th-century founder, Joseph Smith, said he revised parts of the Bible to correct it.
On Christian radio, in face-to-face meetings and on evangelicalsformitt.org, Romney's team is making the pitch that while he doesn't share their theology, he does share their values.
"What I find as I talk to people, evangelical Christians and others, is that they very badly want a person of faith to lead the country," Romney said recently on "Jerry Johnson Live," the radio show hosted by the president of Criswell College, a Southern Baptist school in Dallas. "They don't care so much about the brand of faith as they do about the values of the person."
He expanded on that argument during Thursday's debate: "We don't choose our leader based on which church they go to. ... The people we're fighting, they're the ones who divide over faith and decide matters of this nature in the public forum."
Romney has been underscoring indirectly that the Old and New Testaments are part of LDS scripture. At a campaign event shortly after the Virginia Tech shootings, Romney said his first response "was to pick up my Bible and reread the account of the murder of Abel by his brother" and reflect on the nature of evil.
He recently cited the Bible as his favorite book, while also raising eyebrows by naming "Battlefield Earth," a novel by the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, as his favorite piece of fiction. He said he in no way supported the religion.
In the next few weeks, the campaign will take a more direct approach, sending two of its evangelical supporters for meetings with pastors and others in key primary states.
Mark DeMoss, a public relations executive whose prominent client roster includes the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, said he volunteered to travel to South Carolina and Alabama on Romney's behalf.
Jay Sekulow, a Washington insider and chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group founded by Robertson, is heading to Iowa and Florida, DeMoss said.
Asked whether Romney has had any success with conservative Christians so far, DeMoss' cautious response indicated just how far the candidate has to go.
"I'm not going to suggest that evangelicals are running to the microphone endorsing Mitt Romney," DeMoss said, "but neither are they running to microphones rejecting him, which I think is pretty positive."
White evangelicals comprise more than one-third of the Republican Party, so if Romney is to emerge from a crowded GOP field to take the nomination he's got to win them over.
Hugh Hewitt, the conservative blogger and radio talk show host, is trying to help Romney by publishing the book "A Mormon in the White House?" which urges Christians not to oppose the candidate because of LDS teachings they consider heretical.
But Allen Hertzke, a University of Oklahoma political scientist who studies evangelical activism, said concern about Mormon theology runs "pretty deep" among traditional Christians. A recent visit to a Christian bookstore confirmed that, he said.
"I found books on how to convert Mormons, on the Mormon cult and the history of Mormonism, all from the standpoint that it's a cult and it's not true Christianity," Hertzke said. "Some are books about how to talk to a Mormon, but buried in that question is the assumption that Mormons are wrong."
Latter-day Saints believe that authentic Christianity vanished a century after Christ and was restored only through Smith, who Mormons consider a prophet. Mormons also consider their church presidents to be prophets — among the LDS teachings that Christians consider far outside the mainstream. Mormons defend their church as truly Christian and are offended that anyone would say otherwise.
Romney has another hurdle: Persuading evangelicals and the party faithful that he is sincere in his opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Romney ran as a moderate in a failed 1994 Senate campaign and in his winning gubernatorial campaign eight years later.
Jim Guth, who specializes in religion and politics at Furman University in South Carolina, noted that President George W. Bush overcame evangelical concern about his "shaky" commitment to traditional marriage and other hot-button issues by emphasizing the depth of his religious conversion as a born-again Christian. But, Guth said, Romney, "does not have the ability to compensate for this with his own religious persona, as Bush did."
Kevin Madden, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, said the former governor's commencement address will focus on leadership, not his faith.
As Romney's supporters tackle the religion question before evangelical audiences, they will have to tread carefully, as a recent post on evangelicalsformitt.org shows.
David French, a co-founder of the site, warily began a piece praising the Mormon emphasis on family and the church's contribution to America.
"I know that I'm going to get in trouble in some quarters for the following statement," French wrote, "but I'm going to say it anyway."
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