CONCORD, N.H. – Residents in New Hampshire and Iowa have received phone calls raising questions about Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, his Mormon faith and the Vietnam War-era military deferments he received while serving as a missionary in France.
Western Wats, a Utah-based company, placed the calls that initially sound like a poll but then pose questions that cast Romney in a harsh light, according to those who received the calls. In politics, this type of phone surveying is called "push polling" — contacting potential voters and asking questions intended to plant a message in voters' minds, usually negative, rather than gauging peoples' attitudes.
A spokesman for the company would not comment on whether it made the calls. "Western Wats has never, currently does not, nor will it ever engage in push polling," its client services director, Robert Maccabee, said in a statement released Thursday night.
The 20-minute calls started on Sunday in New Hampshire and Iowa. At least seven people in the two early voting states received the calls.
Among the questions was whether a resident knew that Romney was a Mormon, that he received military deferments when he served as a Mormon missionary in France, that his five sons did not serve in the military, that Romney's faith did not accept blacks as bishops into the 1970s and that Mormons believe the Book of Mormon is superior to the Bible.
"It started out like all the other calls. ... Then all of the sudden it got very unsettling and very negative," said Anne Baker, an independent voter from Hollis, N.H.
"Whatever campaign is engaging in this type of awful religious bigotry as a line of political attack, it is repulsive and, to put it bluntly, un-American," Romney spokesman Matt Rhoades said. "There is no excuse for these attacks. Governor Romney is campaigning as an optimist who wants to lead the nation. These attacks are just the opposite. It's ugly and divisive."
Sabrina Matteson, a Republican from Epsom, N.H., said she got a call on Wednesday.
"The first 15 or 20 questions were general questions about the leading candidates," she said. "Then he started asking me very, very negatively phrased questions about Romney. The first one was would you have a more favorable, less favorable, blah, blah, blah, impression of Mitt Romney if you knew that his five sons had never served in the military and that he considered working on a presidential campaign as public service or some such question."
In Iowa, Romney supporter and state representative Ralph Watts got a call on Wednesday.
"I was offended by the line of questioning," Watts said. "I would be equally as offended if someone called and said in the nature of if, 'you know the Catholic Church supported pedophile priests.' I don't think it has any place in politics."
Romney's Mormon faith has been an issue in his presidential bid, especially with conservative evangelicals who are central to his strategy to cast himself as the candidate for the GOP's family values voters.
Baker said the caller initially wouldn't tell her who was behind the call. Eventually, Baker was told the caller was from Western Wats.
Last year, Western Wats conducted polling that was intended to spread negative messages about Democratic candidates in a House race in New York and the Senate race in Florida. The Tampa Tribune and the Albany Times Union reported that Western Wats conducted the calls on behalf of the Tarrance Group.
That Virginia-based firm now works for Romney's rival, Rudy Giuliani. The campaign has paid the firm more than $400,000, according to federal campaign reports.
In his statement on behalf of Western Wats, Maccabee said the company was not currently conducting "any work for ... The Tarrance Group, in the state of New Hampshire or Iowa, nor have we for the period in question."
Maccabee added that confidentiality agreements prohibit the company from commenting on specific projects or clients.
Ed Goeas, chief of the Tarrance Group, said there is no connection between the Giuliani campaign and Western Wats. They are using a Houston firm to do their polling.
"I know absolutely it's not us," Goeas said. "I can say with absolute, no, it's not us."
Western Wats also worked for Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. Employees said they used such calls to describe GOP rival Steve Forbes as pro-abortion rights.
New Hampshire law requires the all political advertising, including phone calls, identify the candidate being supported. No candidate was identified in the calls.