Romney, Huntsman compete in Mormon primary
SALT LAKE CITY – Distant cousins Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman each have deep ties to their Mormon community and, they hope, its pocketbooks.
As Romney and Huntsman jostle for support, Mormons are watching two of their own compete in what could become a nasty, intra-faith contest between two scions of Mormon royalty. Both families are steeped in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Huntsman and Romney are planning trips to Utah in the coming days to pitch their White House bids and round up campaign dollars.
Yet neither should assume they have a lock on the traditionally conservative, 5 million-strong Mormon community in the United States. Theirs is the first Mormon-versus-Mormon contest for a presidential nomination and it puts two dynasties in competition for their faith's small bloc of votes yet sizeable clutch of campaign cash.
"It's not automatic that this Mormon is going to support a Mormon," said Gary Lawrence, a Mormon who is a political pollster in Southern California.
He pointed to Romney's 2008 campaign that included a speech on his faith that helped assuage some of the public's concerns over Mormons.
"I would say Mormonism will be a factor in the candidacy of these two men," he said, "but not as big of one as it was the last time."
That could help or hurt.
"I really believe most of the Mormon population is going to vote for the person, not for the religion. That's what we're taught," said Mac Robinson, the GOP chairman of rural Kane County, some 300 miles southeast of Salt Lake City near the Arizona state line.
"I'm a very active Mormon, but it does not matter to me whether (the candidates) are Mormon or not," said Robinson, who is leaning toward Romney but isn't decided. "I'm not going to vote for anybody because they are a Mormon. I think some people will."
That's why Romney and Huntsman are trying to set themselves apart — in this state that is more than half Mormon — despite looking a lot alike on paper.
Both are former Republican governors and sons of industrial giants. Both have matinee idol good looks and business-heavy resumes. Both are Mormons with big families. Both are running for the White House with positions that fall outside the GOP's orthodoxy.
Yet they are hardly friends, let alone similar campaigners.
Romney is a product of the 1950s and at times comes across with a formality of a bygone era. Huntsman came of age during the 1960s. The generational difference is evident in their styles on the road.
Romney struggles to chat up voters on the campaign trail, awkwardly filling in the silences with small talk. Huntsman is a natural retail campaigner who sidles up to tables for long conversations about work and family.
Romney polls and meticulously tests messages. Huntsman prefers to go from his gut — much to the chagrin of his advisers at times. His campaign has yet to conduct a single poll.
Neither is eager to criticize the other and both try to play down the rivalry.
"It's a lot of hyperbole. It sounds good. Everybody loves drama," Huntsman said in Wolfeboro, N.H., during a campaign trip that took him within miles of the Romney clan's vacation home.
"I met Gov. Romney as governor a few years ago. My grandfather and his father used to fish in the same stream in Idaho 300 years ago. I have nothing but respect for Gov. Romney and his family. He's an accomplished professional," Huntsman said.
Both say they're not personally close; neither is rushing to help the other despite a tangled political and personal family tree.
In 2008, Huntsman backed Sen. John McCain's presidential bid and was often at his side, watching the person-to-person campaign master at work.
His father, industrial magnate Jon Huntsman Sr., was a national finance chairman for Romney, turning to his vast network to open deep pockets that helped Romney wage a professional — although unsuccessful — presidential bid. Now, the elder Huntsman is working for his son's bid.
The personal ties are even deeper.
Huntsman's uncle Bruce once dated Romney's sister Lynn.
Huntsman's maternal grandfather was best friends with Romney's father, George
Huntsman's mother lived for two years with Romney's sister Jane while they were at the University of Utah.
Going back even further: Early Mormon missionary Parley Pratt is Huntsman's great-great-great-grandfather and Romney's great-great-grandfather.
Both Romney's and Huntsman's families have strong familial ties to the Mormon church. Romney served as a stake president in the church, roughly the equivalent of a volunteer chief executive officer in a Catholic diocese. Huntsman's family lends its private jets to church leaders.
Yet for the advantages of being linked to their church, there is a downside. A Gallup poll found 22 percent of Americans wouldn't support a Mormon for president — a consistent number since the polling firm started asking about Mormons in the White House in 1967 when then-Michigan Gov. George Romney sought the office.
"I think (Mormonism) is still something of a barrier, but not insurmountable," said Lavar Webb, a Mormon and a Republican strategist who worked for former Gov. Mike Leavitt. "I think anyone will have a difficult fight against Obama, but I think if he lost, it wouldn't be his Mormon religion that did it."
Elliott reported from Washington.