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Well Groomed

Let me just admit that Mitt Romney gives me the willies. It's not the Mormon thing. Honest. What kind of undergarments a man likes his church elders to wear is between him and his God. Besides, having survived a Southern Baptist upbringing, I don't regard the prospect of a Latter Day Saint president appreciably scarier than one reared in the Armageddon-obsessed evangelism of my youth. Rather, it's Romney's look that disturbs: the teeth, the coif, the general air of gameshow-hostness that fills me with the overwhelming urge to buy a vowel every time the guy enters a room. A man who believes in the restoration of Israel's Ten Tribes and that Zion is preordained to be rebuilt on American soil is one thing. One who uses that much product in his hair is another matter entirely.

That said, I realize not all of the electorate--and in particular certain segments of the Republican base--share my equanimity about Romney's faith. Hey, I get it: My childhood faith taught me that Mormons were cultists, lost souls, theologically confused followers of false prophets to be regarded with the same suspicion, pity, and condescension as, say, Moonies, Scientologists, or liberals. But unlike these other suspect groups, the Mormon church still carries that whole polygamy stigma, thanks to some of its more enthusiastic adherents' refusal to abandon the more-is-better approach to wiving. And while it's unlikely that this is what most annoys conservative Christians about Mormons, it certainly has more gut-level resonance (and thus political potential) than, say, doctrinal squabbles over who holds a monopoly on The Truth. Precious few Americans can tell you the basic tenets of the Mormon faith, or how they differ from, say, the Hari Krishnas. But nearly everyone has heard the buzz over "Big Love".

Which is why I was so impressed when I recently learned of a matrimony-themed joke that I suspect is fast becoming a stump staple for Mrs. Mitt Romney. In response to any snickering or snarky insinuations about the attitudes of her family's religion toward marriage, Ann Romney apparently likes to point out that her husband is, in fact, the only Republican frontrunner who has had only one wife.

Kapow. Take that Mayor Giuliani and Senator McCain. I'm sure neither of you guys would ever condone your staffs' or surrogates' indulging in any below-the-belt mud slinging. But should anyone you know ever be tempted to wield the Romney family's faith as a weapon, be aware that Mrs. Romney is familiar with your, let us say, uneven records on preserving the sanctity of marriage--and she ain't afraid to remind so-called values voters about them.

As the-one-and-only Mrs. Romney points out, the current crop of Republican presidential aspirants aren't exactly the sort of guys that Christian conservatives dream of having their daughters marry. Currently, Giuliani and McCain are the acknowledged frontrunners. Toss in another big name conservative being talked about as a contender, Newt Gingrich, and the lineup starts to look even dodgier. It's not simply that Newt, Rudy, and McCain are on their third, third, and second wives, respectively. It's that every one of these guys cheated on and dumped their old wives with all the discretion, class, and sensitivity of Donald Trump. Better still, Rudy and Newt both did it long after they had become prominent Republican officials (seven years ago for the former, eight for the latter).

Anyone seeking a fuller accounting of the soap-operatic tackiness of these political, um, players should check out Steve Benen's piece in the July/August 2006 Washington Monthly on the subject. In McCain's defense, he doesn't seem to have misbehaved as egregiously as Giuliani--and, let's face it, few political figures have debased the coin of marriage as aggressively as Newt. Nonetheless, all of them could be considered damaged goods in the eyes of all those religious conservatives who fancy themselves the heart and soul of the GOP.

During the 2000 primary, conservative power player and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson publicly bitch-slapped McCain, questioning the senator's character--comparing him to Clinton no less!--specifically because "he was involved with other women while married to his first wife." My God. If Dr. Dobson has moral qualms about McCain, just think of how he must feel about Newt and Rudy! Nor have the past few years softened the group's stance on the subject, if the comments of a Focus on Family spokesperson to Benen are any indication. "If you have a politician, an elected official, and they can't be trusted in their own marriage, how can I trust them with the budget? How can I trust them with national security?" asked Carrie Gordon Earll. While a politician who slipped but went on to patch things up with the missus might be forgiven by conservative Christians, Earll allowed, the same could not be said of a guy "who had an affair and then left his wife."

With this in mind, I have to think that, whatever other delights it may bring, the Republican '08 primary promises to pose an interesting dilemma for Dr. Dobson and his flock. Will evangelicals hold their noses and vote for a guy who belongs to a religious sect that many Christians consider deeply unchristian (not to mention the teensiest bit creepy)? Or will they cast their lot with such proven purveyors of moral turpitude as McCain or Rudy or--God have pity on Calista--even Newt. Cultist or cad: from the evangelical perspective, which is the lesser of two evils?

It's impossible to say at this point. But if I were Senator Sam Brownback, you can bet I'd be yakking it up on conservative radio programs from Bangor to Baja, going on and on about how much I adore my darling wife, how great it is to be oh-so-boringly Catholic--and, of course, why men should take care to avoid over-styling their hair.