When Should Mitt Romney Talk About His Mormon Faith?

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When Mitt Romney is assessed as a candidate for the presidency, a handful of potential vulnerabilities are often cited. Among them are his wealth and, as a result, his difficulties c0nnecting with voters, as well as his Mormon faith.

The concerns about Romney's wealth are well documented, from questions about his tax returns to statements about his wife's owning a "couple of Cadillacs."  But the role of his faith and the effect they might have on voters are more of a mystery. Romney hasn't spoken much about his religious beliefs, and he passed up on another opportunity to do so Monday.

Romney spent more than two years living in France in the 1960s, during which time he served as a Mormon missionary. Missionary work is an integral part of the Mormon experience and many young Mormons live abroad for a period of time in a similar capacity.

At a campaign stop in Aston, Pa., Romney, 65, was asked by a French reporter whether he had any memories from his time in France. Romney recalled taking vacations in the country, saying, "I think the best memories were with my wife on vacations from time to time in France," skipping the chance to discuss his faith.

It's unclear to what extent Romney's faith will motivate voters on Election Day. The latest ABC News polling suggests that it will not be much of a factor: Eighty percent of respondents don't consider Romney's religion a major factor in their decision on whether to support him.

But polling has indicated that Americans are unfamiliar with Mormonism, and several are uncomfortable with the religion.

A Bloomberg News poll released in March found that more Americans had an unfavorable view of the Mormon religion than those who held a favorable view. Thirty-five percent said their views of the Mormon church were unfavorable, while 29 percent said they view the religion favorably and 36 percent said they were not sure.

A survey conducted in November by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 31 percent of non-Mormon Americans believe the religion is not part of the Christian faith. Another 17 percent of non-Mormons were unsure whether Mormonism was a Christian religion.

Potentially damaging to Romney was the poll's open-ended question asking what word respondents believe best describes the Mormon faith. The most common answer was "cult."

Such uncertainty has to do with Mormonism being a relatively new faith, said John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. The religion was founded in the early 1800s by Joseph Smith Jr.

"The Mormon religion is a reasonably new religion and so people don't necessarily know as much about it as they would about, say, Catholicism," Geer said. "I think that there are people who, when they just learn more about the religion, whatever their concerns are will just dissipate."

The high percentage of Americans who are unfamiliar with Romney's faith suggests that questions about his relationship with the Church of Latter-day Saints and the role his faith plays in his life will continue to come up, as such questions tend to do with any president.

"Being somebody of faith is essential to be a successful presidential candidate," Geer said. "Romney has a chance to stake out some ground and talk about his religion. He will have the opportunities during the general election, through conventions and such, to reintroduce himself to the American public."

The opportunity in Aston was not, Geer said, the best time. "I don't think answering a reporter would be the right situation by which he starts to talk about it," Geer added.

Besides, as far as Romney's vacations comment is concerned, Democrats can't harp on him too much. After all, the Obama's took a trip to Paris two years ago.