Utah's Mormons Loathe Huckabee

Of all the possible Super Tuesday outcomes, one is more certain than any other: Mike Huckabee will not carry the state of Utah.

In large part it’s because Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the man credited with saving the Salt Lake City Olympics, is more popular here than in any other state.

But the other reason is that overwhelmingly Mormon Utah has taken a profound dislike to the Southern Baptist preacher best known for his nice-guy persona.

The wellspring of Huckabee hate springs from a now-famous Dec. 16 New York Times Magazine interview in which the former Arkansas governor, in an “innocent voice,” is reported to have asked, “Don’t Mormons ... believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

To Mormons, Huckabee’s eyebrow-raising question represented not only a gross distortion of their beliefs but also a carefully calculated move by a Christian politician who surely knew better.

Huckabee’s remark prompted Romney to call the comments “just not the American way” on NBC’s “Today” show.

Huckabee quickly apologized, saying that Romney’s Mormonism had nothing to do with whether he should be president. With that, the candidates and the national media moved on to other topics.

In Utah, however, all was not forgiven.

“There is a feeling that Huckabee has exploited a lot of the anti-Mormon sentiment,” said LaVarr Webb, a political consultant and publisher in Utah.

“The feeling is that he would certainly know the answers to these questions that he’s been asking sometimes,” said Chuck Gates, assistant managing editor of Utah’s Deseret Morning News.

According to Webb and other state political insiders interviewed by Politico, many Mormons maintain that Huckabee’s apology did not go nearly far enough.

Quin Monson, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, says many observers believe that “evangelicals have rejected Romney, and that Huckabee is aiding and abetting that. ... He’s egging it on.”

As it turns out, this isn’t the first time that Huckabee has rubbed Utahans the wrong way. In the summer of 1998, then-Arkansas Gov. Huckabee, along with fellow national church leaders, attended the National Southern Baptist Convention in Salt Lake City.

At the time, the decision to hold the event in the shadow of the Mormon Tabernacle was viewed by many Mormons as an insulting stab directed at the very heart of the LDS church.

Worse, according to an account published in the Salt Lake Tribune during the convention, some 2,000 “messengers” of the Southern Baptist Convention went door to door in Utah and proselytized, “armed with questionnaires and their personal belief in Jesus Christ as their savior.”

Because of his participation in that convention and because of his theological background, many Utahans believe that Huckabee has been deeply disingenuous throughout the campaign — not just in one well-publicized interview — in his approach toward the issue of Romney’s Mormon faith.

The Huckabee campaign did not respond to e-mail and phone requests for comment.

The Baptists’ choice of Salt Lake City was a deliberate one, said James Guth, a leading authority on the influence of religion in politics and professor at Furman University.

The Baptists intended to “create a new mission field.” Mormons and the Southern Baptists, he explained, are members of “competing missionary religions.”

“It used to be that the Mormons were in Utah and Southern Baptists were in the South,” Guth said. “Now, Mormons are all over the world, and Southern Baptists want to be all over the world.”

Aside from the issue of clashing faiths, there is a more practical component to Huckabee&rquo;s unpopularity.

There is a widespread belief, not just in Utah but among many Romney partisans, that Huckabee’s long-shot — and lingering — candidacy is serving little purpose other than to siphon votes from Romney, Utah’s adopted son, by splitting the conservative vote against John McCain.

“There’s just the feeling that if we really wanted to unite behind a conservative candidate, we would unite behind Romney,” said Dave Hansen, former campaign manager for Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).

“You can’t force [Huckabee] out, but all things considered, I think there are a lot of conservatives who wish he were not still in the race.”

In the unlikely event that Huckabee does capture the Republican nomination, his Utah baggage could come back to haunt him.

In the deeply red state where President Bush still maintains some of his highest approval ratings, a place that has ranked as the most Republican state in the nation in six of the past eight presidential elections, a BYU poll released Monday reveals that Huckabee would pull off the seemingly impossible.

As GOP nominee, he would lose the state of Utah in a hypothetical matchup with Democrat Barack Obama, 58 percent to 42 percent.

Romney, by contrast, would defeat Obama 69 percent to 31 percent. McCain would also win against Obama, though by a more modest 55 percent to 45 percent.

Still, there are limits to how much Utah dislikes Huckabee: In a head-to-head matchup with Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, Huckabee wins handily, 60 percent to 41 percent.
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