WASHINGTON - One out of every six dollars raised last year by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney came from the predominantly Mormon state of Utah, highlighting the relationship between the former Massachusetts governor and the Mormon church.
Several polls have suggested that Romney's Mormon background could hamper his presidential campaign with some voters, especially the key Christian conservative base in the Republican party that views Mormonism with a skeptical eye.
But Romney's success in attracting money from Utah also underscores the support of the 6 million-strong Mormon community - and Romney's star role in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics _ which could prove an invaluable asset in a prolonged presidential campaign, many observers said.
In 2006, Utah residents gave more than $1.3 million in donations of $1,000 or more to Romney's fundraising organizations, or Political Action Committees (PACs), according to a Medill News Service analysis of state and federal filings.
That amount is about 17 times the amount raised in Utah by Sen. John McCain, the candidate who received the second-highest total, $74,000, in large donations from Utah. Only Massachusetts, where Romney was governor, and California exceeded Utah in funds contributed, with $1.9 million and $1.6 million respectively raised by Romney's PAC.
However, Utah, where 70 percent of the population are Mormon, far outdistanced all other states on a per capita basis. Romney collected 51 cents in Utah per citizen, compared to 30 cents in Massachusetts and four cents in California.
"The fundraising underlines the fact that Romney's Mormon religion is a potential issue in the campaign," said Dean Spillotes, director of research at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. "With such strong financial support from apparently Mormon donors, he will need to work hard to demonstrate his independence."
Romney is not the first Mormon to run for the White House - his father ran in 1968 and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, ran in 2000. But in the Republican Party, where conservative Christians play an increasingly influential role, Romney's religious background could hurt his chances of landing the nomination.
"There are some Christians who are uncomfortable with it," says Richard Land, who heads the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
The "Mormon question" could also cast a shadow over Romney's campaign beyond the primaries. In a USA Today/Gallup poll last month, 72 percent of respondents said they would vote for a qualified Mormon nominee. By comparison, 88 percent said they would vote for a female nominee and 94 percent for a black candidate.
But Land, who has met with Romney, added that his Mormon background should not be the reason to reject Romney's candidacy.
"Most Southern Baptists understand we're voting for a commander in chief, not pastor in chief." Land said. "I would encourage him ... to explain how his faith impacts his public policy service and how it doesn't, to give the American people an opportunity to get comfortable with his faith and its relation to public service."
Romney gathered a total of about $8.5 million in 2006, taking advantage of laws in several states - such as Iowa and Michigan - that allow unlimited donations to PACs as long as they are not formally connected to federal office holders or candidates. That ended when Romney formally opened his candidacy in February.
Romney's federal PAC received checks totaling nearly $2.7 million last year, while his organizations in Iowa and Michigan collected $2.1 million and $1.7 million, respectively. Romney also raised money through his PACs in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Alabama, but did not have one in Utah.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), as the Mormon church is officially called, were also among the largest donors to Romney last year. Richard Marriott and J. Willard Marriott Jr., sons of the Mormon entrepreneur who founded the Marriott hotels empire, contributed a total of nearly $390,000 to Romney's PAC's. The Marriott brothers are Maryland residents, so their donations were not included in the Utah totals.
In Utah, Romney received 255 individual donations larger than $1,000, including money from some of the state's best known Mormon business leaders. Larry H. Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz basketball team, and his family contributed more than $102,000 to Romney, while Jon Huntsman, chairman of a chemicals company and the finance co-chair of Romney's campaign, along with his family, contributed $67,000 last year. Huntsman is the father of Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr.
Romney's spokesman Kevin Madden referred all questions about fundraising by Romney's Commonwealth PAC to its officials, who were unavailable for comment. Madden added that Romney's presidential campaign is not targeting any specific religious denomination for contributions.
While Romney has spent his childhood in Michigan and most of his adult life in Massachusetts, he has some strong connections with Utah. He graduated from Brigham Young University in Utah and also rescued the Salt Lake Olympics from a bribery scandal and budget shortfalls.
Salt Lake City accounted for the highest total - $523,000 - of Romney's donations among all U.S. cities last year. Also in the top 10 was Provo, Utah, the home of BYU, with combined donations of $191,000.
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