Is Romney's Religion an Issue in Iowa?

Experts say this election is about a lot more than religion.

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Front-runner Mitt Romney has downplayed his Mormon faith for much of the GOP presidential race, more recently preferring instead to worship the gods of patriotism to connect with voters before the Iowa caucuses.

"I am running for president to help restore the greatness of America," Romney said in a recent press release. "I don't want to transform America; I want to return America to the principles that have made us the greatest nation on earth."

Whether or not the patriotic shtick works on Iowans remains to be seen—caucuses kick off Tuesday night—but some still wonder whether Romney's religion spooks voters in Iowa and other early-primary states.

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Experts say it might have been an issue back in 2008 with then-presidential candidate Mike Huckabee consistently reminding voters of Romney's religion, but this election year is different. While conservative religious voters might be uneasy about Romney's religion, they're concerned about something they feel is much more important: beating Obama.

"This time around, what you're seeing from the Republican Party is that they want a candidate that can beat President Obama," says Andrew Smith, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, adding that many voters are coming to the realization that Romney might be that person, even if he is Mormon. "They're saying, 'I don't care what his religion is, if he can beat Obama that trumps religion as a problem.'"

So while Iowans might be personally uneasy with Romney's religion, experts expect many of them to ultimately support him as the primaries whittle away at the GOP cast of characters, simply because he's not Obama.

"There are so many other factors involved," says Andrew Langer, president of the Institute for Liberty, adding that religion has been the least of Romney's worries when it comes to gaining or losing voters. "What most folks are paying attention to is philosophically he's not a traditional conservative, and then there's the general personality issue where folks see him as too slick by half."

"Those [issues] matter to voters far more than whether or not Romney is Mormon," he adds. "Most voters could care less."

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The weak economy has also played a role in subduing the role of religion. It's a script Romney has rarely strayed from in his campaigning in the Hawkeye state: When the economy goes bad, it hurts pretty much everyone, regardless of religion. And that's really become the focal point of the campaign even more so than social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Still, Romney could face an uphill battle in South Carolina, where 60 percent of voters reported evangelical faith in 2008 exit polls. "I think that hurt him certainly in 2008 and it could potentially hurt him this time around," Smith says.

mhandley@usnews.com

Twitter: @mmhandley