"Is the bigger problem for Romney not evangelical Christians, but more secular voters who are skeptical of what Mormonism is, or just ignorant?" Anderson asked.
Perhaps it is just their growing hostility to religion in general, Mason said. "Mormonism becomes the lens through which they can paint their critique."
Regardless, the Romney campaign "would be crazy if they didn't have a plan in place already" to deal with Mormon bias, said Mark Noll, a University of Notre Dame historian who wrote "God and Race in American Politics," ''just like Obama's people are just dusting off whatever they had ready in 2008."
In 2008, racial issues threatened to torpedo Obama after the emergence of militant pro-black sermons by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Obama defused the issue with a major speech on race, but the Wright connection fed a GOP narrative that Obama was not "one of us." Democrats labeled such statements coded language that appealed to racial prejudices.
In the final stages of his losing campaign, McCain declined entreaties from some advisers to use Wright's sermons to attack Obama.
"John McCain, whatever else you want to say about him, did not use all the racial weapons he could have used," said Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor and author of "The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency."
"Well, McCain lost," Kennedy continued. "I can't help but think that this time around, if there is anything that could plausibly be used, no matter how ugly, it will be used. So I anticipate a very messy, ugly campaign."
"I hope I'm wrong," Kennedy said, "but I expect it to be worse."
Jesse Washington covers race and Rachel Zoll covers religion for The Associated Press. They are reachable at http://www.twitter.com/jessewashington and http://www.twitter.com/rzollAP .
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