A new Washington Post-Pew Research poll asked Americans to pick one word they associate with each of the GOP presidential candidates.
For Herman Cain, they picked “9-9-9,” his brilliantly named – and controversial -- plan for simplifying the nation’s tax code. For Rick Perry, Americans picked the word “Texas” – the state he has governed for the past 11 years.
But for Mitt Romney, the answer was “Mormon.”
The poll respondents didn’t pick “Massachusetts,” the state Romney served as governor. They did not associate Romney with “Health Care” or “Businessman” or even “Nice Hair.”
The answer by an overwhelming margin was "Mormon."
This poll came on the heels of another poll last week from Associated Press/Gfk which found 19 percent of Republicans say they are less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate. That is bigger hurdle for Republicans than voting for a black candidate. Only 4 percent of Republicans said they are less likely to vote for a candidate if he is black.
A CNN/ORC International poll this month found 36 percent of Americans don’t believe Mormonism to be a Christian religion –51 percent said yes – and 17 percent of all Americans say they are less likely to vote for a candidate who is Mormon.
Washington political insiders are reluctant to speak publicly about Mormonism as a challenge for the Romney campaign.
Among political strategists and elected officials the conventional wisdom is that Romney will be the GOP nominee for president in 2012.
He has the most money of any candidate and polls show him running first or a close second in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But it is getting harder by the day to pretend that Romney’s Mormon faith is not an issue with American voters, particularly the Evangelical Christians.
Romney’s Mormonism became an issue when he ran for president in 2008, too.
Despite spending millions of dollars of his personal fortune, Romney was unable to win the 2008 Iowa Caucuses where Evangelicals account for the majority of GOP voters.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, an Evangelical himself, ultimately won the caucuses. Weeks before his victory, Huckabee told the New York Times magazine "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"
Romney tried to put the Mormon issue behind him in 2007 with a speech that was widely compared to John F. Kennedy’s pledge in 1960 that the Catholic Church would not influence policy in his administration. Romney said that he would put the U.S. Constitution before his Mormon beliefs.
[Some people might] “Prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion [and] say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction…” Romney said. “That -- I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers -- I will be true to them and to my beliefs.”
But four years later the issue has not disappeared. As Gov. Perry battles Romney for the nomination one of his political allies has raised questions about the wisdom of nominating a Mormon for president.
Pastor Robert Jeffress, an evangelical leader from Texas, to introduced Perry to Christian conservative activists at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. by declaring: “Mormonism is a cult…” Jeffress later added: “That is a mainstream view… [And] Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.”
When asked by Politico if he believed Romney was a Christian, Jeffress answered unequivocally: “No.”
Jeffress followed up that initial charge with a slew of television interviews casting aspersions on Mormonism and promoting Perry as the only choice for “true” Christians.
Perry has refused to disavow the Pastor and his comments.
Now, there are some political assets that come with being a Mormon. The Church reports 7 million members in the United States. Their Members are heavily concentrated in swing Western states like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada – states which went for Obama by slim margins in 2008. If Romney can flip those states in 2012 by mobilizing Mormons, it may make the difference in a close contest with President Obama.
Mormons also displayed political muscle by successfully spending $20 million in support of a ban on gay marriage in California. And recently the church has launched an advertising campaign to improve the image of Mormons. The “I’m a Mormon” ads can be seen on billboards and in television ads across the country.
The pro-active stance by the church is clearly the smart move. Romney is going to have to address it, too. Following the church’s example would be wise.
People who pretend the issue does not exist are only fooling themselves.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His most recent book is "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) was released in July.