DUBUQUE, Iowa 0 Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch is getting used to a lot on the presidential campaign trail through Iowa. The nonstop bus tours, the sleep deprivation, the endless questions on the farm crisis.
But there is one thing Hatch just cannot get used to: religious bigotry.
"Bigotry has raised its ugly head here in Iowa," Hatch said. "I thought bigotry and religious intolerance had gone out when John F. Kennedy was elected the first Catholic president. But it hasn't. Not by any means."
Hatch is clearly using his connections to the LDS Church, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints in Iowa, as a base to recruit voters to Saturday's GOP presidential straw poll, held in Ames. And that apparently is troubling some people.
Hatch says some of his GOP colleagues and their supporters are telling citizens and members of the press that the straw poll won't be a true test of Hatch's strength 0 that, in effect, he's cheating for using so many Iowa Mormons.
Hatch, an active member of the LDS Church, said he's also heard the claims that LDS Church members aren't Christians a "misinformation" campaign Hatch believes is intended to stir old prejudices in this staunchly religious state where farming and church are fundamentally interwoven in the heartland culture.
"I don't want any bigotry or intolerance against any religion," Hatch said, "and I am not going to take any crap from anybody about my religion."
Even when those attending Hatch events don't bring up religion, Hatch says he feels obligated to bring up his religious faith and commitment to religious freedom for all people.
"I can't do anything about bigots and bigotry, but I can do a lot about people who are misinformed about my religion and say I am not Christian," he said. "I take my Christian faith very seriously, and in the end, I believe my personal beliefs will be my biggest advantage."
But even as the senator complains about what's happening in Iowa, he is using his "natural connections" with local LDS members.
Last Sunday Hatch attended a sacrament meeting at an Iowa City LDS Church. Later that evening, Hatch, a former LDS bishop, attended a fireside, an informal meeting in a private home of a church member.
Jeremy Karras, a Utah native attending the University of Iowa's School of Dentistry, said Hatch spoke about his presidential campaign in the church after the sacrament meeting ended, but didn't mention it at the fireside.
After the church meeting, Hatch passed out "blue cards" that told people how to vote for him Saturday, how to get the $25 voting tickets (the straw poll is really a fund-raising event for the Iowa Republican Party), how to get on the free bus to Ames and so on.
Hatch campaign spokesman Jeff Flint said Hatch wasn't campaigning at that church or any other. "People came up to him after the meeting and asked him about it. He just answered questions," Flint said.
"The senator is being very well-received" in the Mormon community, said Karras. "We all recognized him (at the church meeting) and went up to him."
Karras didn't get on the bus list soon enough (the bus is apparently full) and so he will drive from Iowa City to Ames, about a 100-mile trip, Saturday with his wife and three other people 0 all planning to vote for Hatch.
There are 20 Utah couples in Karras' student apartment building and, to Karras' knowledge, most are planning on going to Ames to support Hatch.
"There's a law school, medical school and dental school here" at the university 0 "a real Utah presence with a number of LDS people" there, Karras said. "In fact, they call my apartment building Little Utah."
And Hatch has clearly tapped in.
Hatch believes the Republican presidential candidates are beginning to bring up Hatch's religion in their campaign stops because they finally recognize him as a serious candidate and a serious competitor for campaign contributions. "It's going to get worse," he predicted.
"They tell people there is nothing to my campaign, that I'm just out getting the Mormon vote and there is no reason to vote for me if they aren't Mormon," Hatch said.
There are about 16,000 LDS Church members in Iowa, but not all are active members. And only those 18 years old or older by next November can vote in the straw poll. But that still leaves thousands of adult Mormons in Iowa who could support the senator, although certainly not all will, Hatch says.
Hatch does not shy away from religion on the campaign trail. He repeatedly raises the fact he sponsored legislation on religious freedom and school prayer, and he sprinkles in references to his personal faith and the rights of all Americans to worship without interference from the government.
That message, Hatch said, resonates with Iowans who, like Utahns, are conservative, religious and family-oriented. "I am finding I have common ground with people in every state who like the fact I am not afraid of taking on those kinds of hard issues."
Hatch finds himself discussing with Iowans his LDS faith, his faith in Jesus Christ and his fundamental moral values.
"I feel I can break down a lot of barriers and prejudice," he said, adding it is not just bigotry against LDS Church members but against Utah in general.
He said he is tired of Utah being thought of as a "rural, insignificant mountain state run by Mormons. I intend to bring respect to our state."
The references to Mormonism by other candidates may simply be a case of jealousy by other candidates, some of whom have been campaigning in Iowa for years, over Hatch's ability to tap quickly into a built-in grassroots network of church members who share Hatch's moral ideology.
Hatch acknowledges he has tremendous support from church members in Iowa, some of whom have hosted Hatch events in their homes and drummed up support in their local wards. Parker Bauer is a transplant from Salt Lake City who jumped at the chance to help Hatch organize a luncheon speech in Dubuque.
A recent Fox News poll showed 17 percent of those questioned wouldn't vote for a Mormon for president. "That means 83 percent would, and I am going to win with those," Hatch said.
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