Romney U.S. Presidential Run May Make Religion Political Issue--First Time Since 1960

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As Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney weighs a presidential race, the former business executive brings assets, liabilities and one wild card: his Mormon religion.

Religion hasn't played a major role in a presidential race since John F. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic elected 45 years ago. Yet Romney's membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nicknamed the Mormon Church, may complicate his courtship of Republican social conservatives and the evangelical Christians who, through their numbers and activism, play a critical role in the party's nominating process.

``Among the religious right there is at least some segment that thinks of Mormons as heretics,'' said Gary Jacobson, a political expert at the University of California, San Diego. ``On the other hand, in terms of social values, they're indistinguishable.''

Romney says he is considering a presidential run and has the potential to enter the contest for the 2008 Republican nomination among the top tier of contenders. President George W. Bush can't run again after two terms, and Vice President Dick Cheney has said he won't. The first primary is in New Hampshire, which borders Massachusetts and where Romney would be expected to do well.

The question of his Mormonism may reveal something about the Republican Party and the Christian activists who have been key to recent Republican electoral victories.

Romney's religion ``might hurt him slightly, but I don't think it would be a major negative,'' said Don Wildmon, an ordained Methodist minister who is chairman of the American Family Association in Tupelo, Mississippi.

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