Mormons sense victory for their man in Nevada
After bubbling away for months beneath the surface of Republican discourse, the potentially tricky issue of Mitt Romney's religious faith is poised to come into play for the first time this weekend as the focus of the primary season shifts to Nevada.
Mr Romney received a significant boost yesterday when he received the backing of billionaire businessman and former candidate Donald Trump, scotching rumours he was to endorse Mr Romney's rival Newt Gingrich.
Saturday's caucuses present an opportunity for Mr Romney to further solidify front-runner status, thanks to the enthusiastic support of the state's Mormon community, who are likely to turn out in huge numbers to endorse a fellow member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.
In 2008, Mr Romney confounded pollsters who expected him to finish fourth in Nevada by claiming a stunning victory with 51 per cent of the vote. It later emerged that Mormons, who make up around 7 per cent of the state's residents, had accounted for 26 per cent of caucus-goers. More than 90 per cent backed him.
This time, analysts expect the trend to be even more marked. "The community will turn out in huge numbers, and I say that as a member myself," said Mark Peplowski, a professor of political science at the College of Southern Nevada. "This is their big chance. They can smell it, they can feel it. I anticipate the [Mormon] turnout will account for more than 30 per cent of those voting on Saturday."
The depth of support was evident at Mr Romney's opening Nevada rally, at the Brady Linen Company in Las Vegas, where the crowd was filled with big Mormon families. Many sported attire from Brigham Young University, the Church's college in neighbouring Utah where Mr Romney studied.
A big win tomorrow will not push Mr Romney over the top; mathematically the race for the Republican nomination could drag on for months. But after Tuesday's victory in Florida, he has growing momentum.
Mr Romney's faith is a double-edged sword. Mormons may represent a powerful demographic in Nevada, along with neighbouring Arizona and Utah, but they are treated with suspicion by evangelicals who dominate Republican politics elsewhere. Many conservative Christians regard the religion as a cult, and research suggests 30 per cent of Americans see it as a barrier to the presidency.
The Church's conservative position on social issues can also galvanise liberals. At a rally in Minnesota on Wednesday, Mr Romney became the latest candidate to be "glitter-bombed" by gay rights activists.
Perhaps understandably, Mr Romney has steered clear of addressing his Mormonism. "He's taking a page from the playbook of John Kennedy, the first Catholic candidate for president," said Professor Peplowski. "Kennedy said, 'I am not the Catholic candidate for President, I'm the Democratic candidate who happens to be a Catholic.' Romney wants to be seen as the businessman, he's the conservative Republican, who just happens to also be a Mormon."