Political virtuoso Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics says Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith will be “a much more minor issue than people think” in the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
Romney’s ability to win over the GOP’s Christian conservative base has been in the headlines since Friday, when Dallas minister Robert Jeffress, speaking at the Voters Values Summit in Washington, D.C., branded Mormonism as a cult.
But in an exclusive Newsmax.TV interview, Sabato, who analyzed Tuesday night's GOP debate in New Hampshire, suggested that the political import of Romney’s religion has been greatly exaggerated.
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"In the end, I’ll bet it’s a much more minor issue than people think,” Sabato tells Newsmax.TV. “If it has any impact at all, it’s going to occur in Iowa. Sixty percent of the voters in the Republican caucuses there are fundamentalist Christians. Many of them are very strongly opposed to Mormonism.
“So Romney will have a tough time getting their support, a tough time getting fundamentalist support in, say, South Carolina. But I think it’s also true that, if he’s the Republican nominee, overwhelmingly, over 90 percent plus of those fundamentalist Christians, will end up voting for Romney,” he predicted.
“They’re not going to sit out the election, they’re certainly not going to vote for [President Barack] Obama.”
Social conservatives lack a strong top-tier candidate, accounting for the gyrations in the polls as GOP primary voters test-drive alternatives to Romney. Sabato said.
“Part of the reason why Herman Cain has risen is that he’s a placeholder candidate for many of those voters who had been with, say, Michele Bachmann, and have been disappointed by her performance and organization. They have gone with Cain now,” Sabato said. “They had hoped that Rick Perry would be the answer, and then he seemed to flop in a couple of debates.”
Once the GOP picks its nominee, however, Sabato expects the Republican base to rally around that candidate to oppose Obama's re-election bid. And he sees the GOP elites already are coalescing behind Romney.
“When you look at this field, who’s got the experience, who’s been in dozens of debates, who’s run for major office, who’s been elected to major office, who’s been around the track presidentially?” Sabato said. “There’s only one candidate, and that’s Mitt Romney.
“I’m not endorsing Mitt Romney,” he hastened to add. “It’s not my business to endorse candidates. But I can see why the Republican leadership, and Republican big shots like Chris Christie, are coming around to Romney. It’s not as though they have a lot of choice.”
Other highlights from Sabato’s exclusive Newsmax.TV interview:
- He doubts Herman Cain’s surge will last. GOP support will soften once his 9-9-9 proposal is better understood. “The scrutiny is going to make it clear that that program really doesn’t add up in the way that he’s suggesting,” Sabato says. “Also, the big problem for the Republicans is that it introduces a 9 percent sales tax . . . A lot of federal people, elected officials and bureaucrats, have wanted to get their hands on sales tax money. Republicans don’t want that to happen.”
- Although Perry did not perform well in Tuesday’s debate, Sabato said the Texas governor has “15 million reasons” to be confident regarding his prospects — the impressive amount of cash in his campaign coffers. Sabato does not rule out a Perry comeback.
- He described Ron Paul as “a major force, particularly with young people, stuck at between 10 and 20 percent, will never be able to exceed that 20 percent, probably will be closer to 10.”
- He sees former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as “one of the brightest candidates out there, always fun to listen to in debates. Has enough baggage for a 747 jetliner — just not going to be nominated.”
- Rep. Bachmann’s moment has come and gone, he says: “I’ll be surprised if she’s even able to win in the Iowa caucuses. Even if she does, she’s not going to be the nominee.”
- Former Sen. Rick Santorum did “a good job” in Tuesday’s debate, making the most of the few opportunities he was afforded.
- Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is “a candidate in search of a Republican constituency. “Twenty years ago, he would have had a lot of support because the Northeastern, more liberal wing of the party was stronger. Some of them are for Romney, and there aren’t many left."
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