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Race, religion collide in presidential campaign

Saturday - 5/5/2012, 12:56pm  ET

AP National Writers

(AP) - How unthinkable it was, not so long ago, that a presidential election would pit a candidate fathered by an African against another condemned as un-Christian.

Yet here it is: Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney, an African-American and a white Mormon, representatives of two groups and that have endured oppression to carve out a place in the United States.

How much progress has America made against bigotry? By November, we should have some idea.

Perhaps mindful of the lingering power of prejudice, both men soft-pedal their status as racial or religious pioneers. But these things "will be factors whether they're explicitly stated or not, because both Obama and Romney are minorities," said Nancy Wadsworth, co-editor of the anthology "Faith and Race in American Political Life."

Mormons are 1.7 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center. African-Americans are 12.6 percent

"Americans like to obsess about ways that people are different," said Wadsworth, a political science professor at the University of Denver. Voters of all types say that a candidate's race or religious beliefs should not be cause for bias, "but Americans are really conflicted about this, and they talk out of both sides of their mouth."

In an October 2011 Associated Press-GfK poll, 21 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to cast a presidential vote for a Mormon. Four percent said they would be less likely to vote for a black person. An AP poll during the 2008 campaign found that nearly 40 percent of white Americans had at least a partly negative view of black people.

The gap between America's high-minded ideals and narrow-minded practice is not new.

In 1620, the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock searching for religious freedom. The Constitution forbade a religious test for president. Still, the religion of presidential candidates historically has been a major issue, though nearly all have been Protestant.

Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase "separation between church and state," was decried as godless. Nearly 160 years later, John F. Kennedy was tarred as a Roman Catholic who would answer to the pope instead of the American people.

In 1787, the same colonists who had demanded equal rights in their dealings with England wrote a Constitution that reduced blacks to three-fifths of a person. Nearly 80 years would pass before that changed and another century before blacks would be assured the vote.

Obama remains the sole member of the most exclusive club in the world, racial minorities who were nominated for president by a major party.

In 2012, it's unlikely that more than a smattering of die-hard bigots will be repelled by both presidential choices. But even well-intentioned people can be influenced by the powerful emotional pull of these issues.

Obama has been assailed by racially charged accusations since he became the first black president: Obama isn't a citizen; he refused to punish New Black Panthers who intimidated white voters; he's seeking payback for past white racism by redistributing tax money to poor minorities; he's using the Trayvon Martin killing for political gain.

Wes Anderson, a Republican consultant and pollster, said many white swing voters who chose Obama in 2008 think he has governed further to the left than they expected, which has fed ideas that Obama is a typical "black liberal politician" who is "pandering to minorities."

"From their perspective, I think race will be a convenient excuse for why he has not met their expectations," Anderson said.

Wadsworth said that even after three-plus years of a black president, racial bias remains "super-loaded and super-coded."

"It's coded into political `otherness' _ he's a socialist, he's dangerous, maybe a Muslim," she said. "I think down underneath there's a lot of race bias, it's just that they've figured out ways to channel that into seemingly race-neutral codes."

Then there's bald racism.

This April, bar owner Patrick Lanzo in Paulding County, Ga., posted a roadside sign outside his establishment that used the n-word to convey his disdain for the president. "I don't feel bad about (the sign) whatsoever," Lanzo told Fox 5 News in Atlanta.

Obviously, Obama's victory in 2008 did not put racial issues to rest. "He is never on stable ground, racially," Wadsworth observed.

Romney has tried to push past anti-Mormonism, with mixed success. His membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been an issue his entire political career.

In 2007, during his presidential primary battle against Arizona Sen. John McCain, he gave a speech to quiet concerns about his faith. "I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith," Romney said in the address, which used the word "Mormon" only once.

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