Gathering for their April meeting at the county courthouse, Republican activists from Warren County, Iowa, planned for this summer's county fair and vented about illegal immigration.
And then the county chairman for Senator John McCain's presidential campaign, Chad Workman, made an unexpected digression: He took direct aim at Mitt Romney's religion, according to four people at the meeting.
Workman questioned whether Mormons were Christians, discussed an article alleging that the Mormon Church helps fund Hamas, and likened the Mormons' treatment of women to the Taliban's, said participants, who requested anonymity to discuss the meeting freely.
One participant summed up Workman's argument this way: "The fundamental flaw of Mitt Romney . . . was that he was Mormon, not because he thinks this way or that way on one issue."
Workman did not return calls seeking comment.
Next Iowa example:
Emma Nemecek, an Iowa field operative for Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, had recently forwarded an e-mail to Iowa Republicans containing a number of criticisms of Mormonism, including a charge that it is not a Christian faith. The e-mail closed with a quote from a Founding Father, John Jay: "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."
I know Emma and like her. I even put her campaign sign in my yard when she was running for the legislative seat last election cycle. I was disappointed by her action, but I also know that she's a very energetic and involved individual. I'm willing to cut her some slack and write this off as an over-exuberance in supporting her boss. I'm sure she's been frustrated in not "converting" many folks over to Brownback because they are firm Romney supporters. What she did was unacceptable, but I maintain that she is a good person and a good Republican.
Hearkening back to the first example:
The April meeting in Warren County is one of several instances in which a representative of McCain's campaign has tried to highlight Romney's membership in the Mormon Church.
Last year, when Romney and McCain were battling to sign up supporters in key states, Romney's campaign got word that Chuck Larson, a former Iowa GOP chairman and now one of McCain's top Iowa advisers, had been calling Mormonism a "cult" while trying to woo state legislators and their staff. One Republican Larson approached, who would talk only on condition of anonymity, said that Larson told him, "He's a Mormon for crying out loud -- that's essentially a cult."
When David Kochel, a senior Romney adviser in Iowa, learned of Larson's comments, he complained to Larson's business partners. Larson then called back to apologize, according to Kochel, who recounted Larson's apology this way: "David, I just want you to know that I made a joke about Governor Romney's religion. It is not the kind of thing I'm proud of, and it's not the kind of thing I will ever do again."
Larson declined to comment.
There have been other scattered instances of McCain representatives raising Romney's religion. Earlier this year, for example, The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., reported that McCain operatives had distributed to reporters comments by evangelical leader James Dobson questioning whether a Mormon could win the presidency.
The attacks are coming from non-campaign places as well.
Romney has faced repeated slights against his religion from other quarters as well. A Florida televangelist, Bill Keller, told followers recently that a vote for Romney is a vote for Satan. And a small group of worshipers from the Faith Christian Outreach Church in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, has been going door-to-door distributing a DVD that takes a critical look at the Mormon Church.
"Our concern was simply that Mormonism has continued to try and pass itself off as a Christian religion, which it is not," said Monte Knudsen, senior pastor at the church, who insisted the effort was not aimed at hurting Romney's candidacy.
There's not a whole lot of stuff to attack Romney on . . . so we will continue to see these kinds of desperate and misguided "whisper campaigns".