GREEN BAY, Wis.—Mitt Romney seemed to know almost immediately that he had picked the wrong person to call on at a town hall meeting here.
Standing up with a sheet of paper in one hand and a video camera in the other, the young man nervously told Romney that he had concerns about his religion.
"I guess a lot of people say that, you know, your Mormon faith may not be a concern in this election, but I think it might be," the questioner, who later identified himself to reporters as Bret Hatch, a 28-year-old supporter of Ron Paul, told Romney.
Hatch began to cite what he said were scriptures from the Book of Mormon that describes the "cursing" of people with the skin of "blackness." The passage referred to once-held beliefs within the Mormon Church that dark skinned people are inferior to whites — and Romney quickly interrupted.
"I'm sorry, we're just not going to have a discussion about religion in my view," the candidate tersely said, as a Romney staffer tried to take away Hatch's microphone. "But if you have a question, I'll be happy to answer your question."
Hatch nervously continued. "I guess my question is, do you believe it's a sin for a white man to marry and procreate with a black?" he said in a quiet, halting voice.
"No," an obviously irritated Romney shot back, cutting off the questioner. "Next question."
On most days, Romney would have proceeded on, as if the awkward moment hadn't happened. But a few minutes later, after questions about job creation and health care, Romney returned to the subject of his faith after a voter asked about his ability to connect with average Americans.
"This gentleman wanted to talk about the doctrines of my religion," Romney said, glancing toward Hatch. "I'll talk about the practices of my faith."
As he has occasionally mentioned at previous campaign events, Romney went on to talk at length about his work as a volunteer Mormon lay pastor for his church in Boston. He spoke about how it had helped him to connect with people who hadn't come from the same kind of fortunate background he had.
"That gave me the occasion to work with people on a very personal basis that were dealing with unemployment, with marital difficulties, with health difficulties of their own and with their kids," the candidate explained. "Most Americans, by the way, are carrying a burden of some kind. We don't see it. We see someone on the street, they smile and say hello, but behind them they are carrying kind of a bag of rocks. It may be their own health difficulties. It may be concern about a job. It may be inability to pay for the home or the college they were hoping to pay for for a child."
"When you get a chance to know people on a very personal basis, whether you're serving as a pastor or as a counselor or in other kinds of roles, you understand that every kind of person you see is facing some challenges," Romney continued. "And one of the reasons I'm running for president of the United States is I want to help people, I want to lighten those burdens."