Say the name Mitt Romney and three words invariably follow: The Mormon Factor.
Especially this political season as Romney considers a 2008 presidential bid at the same time HBO is premiering a polygamy sitcom, "Big Love," this Sunday.
Yes, we've apparently exhausted all comedic plotlines and have had to turn to a small sliver of oddball humanity for new material. You can imagine the producers brainstorming:
"OK, we've done desperate housewives; we've done sex in the city; we've done the gay thing. Hey, don't bogart. I've got it! A Viagra-popping polygamist with his three wives."
And we wonder why they hate us.
Of course polygamy is illegal in the U.S. — and the Mormon church stopped the practice more than 100 years ago. Even so, a few polygamists still practice the multiple-wife arrangement such that now we can gather 'round the tube and enjoy the fantasy no one really wants to enjoy. Schadenfreude never felt so good.
"Big Love," which frankly sounds like something people deny ever having accidentally watched in their hotel rooms, has people wondering again whether the Mormon Factor will be a problem for Romney should he decide to run for president.
Romney hasn't said he's running yet, but he has announced that he won't seek re-election as governor. That fact along with his travels, speaking engagements and frequent television appearances suggest that he's on the ballot unofficially. Romney also has made several visits to South Carolina, where he's officially stumping for Gov. Mark Sanford's re-election.
Perhaps more to the point, South Carolina is home to the first Southern Republican primary. Life in S.C. these days feels like fraternity rush week as both Democrats and Republicans try to charm would-be voters in perhaps the longest pre-election presidential campaign in history.
Inevitably, the question of Romney's Mormonism comes up. Romney isn't worried and already has demonstrated his sense of humor about some of the stereotypes television viewers will enjoy with "Big Love." During a now-famous speech, he joked that he believed that marriage is between "a man and a woman ... and a woman ... and a woman."
Otherwise, his strategy is to shift focus away from Mormon doctrine and theological differences to shared values. Unlike some candidates who quote scripture to establish their religious bona fides, Romney walks the walk. "Family values" isn't just a campaign slogan; family values define his life. He married his high school sweetheart, and together they raised five sons.
Whatever Romney's Mormon distinctions, he is a social conservative and has fought most of the important battles on his home turf, from same-sex marriage to cloning to stem cell research. He's pro-life, though he promised during his gubernatorial campaign that he wouldn't do anything to change abortion laws if elected. And he's got a track record of "competent conservatism," as some of his admirers have put it.
When Romney became governor of Massachusetts, for example, the state had a $3 billion deficit. Today, Romney can boast a $1 billion surplus. Moreover, he's filed legislation that would ensure health insurance coverage for every citizen in his state. He also is pushing for education reforms that would force parents to be better partners with schools in low-performing districts.
"Force" is perhaps too strong a term, but "voluntary" doesn't quite cover it either. As proposed, parents who receive state child-care funds — and whose children are in underperforming districts — would have to attend a couple of weekend parenting seminars.
Surely there must be something wrong with a man like Romney, who is unfairly handsome and, perhaps, too squeaky-clean. Like a good Mormon (and some Evangelicals), he never has taken a drink or smoked. He doesn't even drink coffee or tea, though does permit himself an occasional Diet Vanilla Coke. (Note to Mitt: Drop the vanilla.)
What else? He's been hugely successful in business; saved the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics from scandal and bankruptcy; is rich and doesn't accept a salary as governor. He's smart, articulate, a wonk who knows his material. "No one's whispering in his ear," in the words of S.C. Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson, who also used "charisma," "charm" and "wow factor" to describe a recent Romney visit down South.
So, what is wrong with this guy, anyway?
He's a Mormon.