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Paul seeks to attract Mormon voters in Nevada GOP contest

His libertarian, anti-Washington principles appeal

Ron Paul hopes his message resonates with Mormons, whose religion has a heritage of battling government interference.

JULIE JACOBSON/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ron Paul hopes his message resonates with Mormons, whose religion has a heritage of battling government interference.

Raina Stump, a Mormon from Logandale, voted for Mitt Romney in the 2008 Nevada presidential caucuses, and she was not alone.

According to exit polls conducted for the Associated Press, nine of 10 Mormon voters in Nevada supported Romney. But today, Stump plans to caucus for Representative Ron Paul of Texas. “A lot of people in my neighborhood, my friends support Romney simply because he’s Mormon,’’ Stump said. “I don’t agree with that.’’

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Paul, promoting libertarian and anti-Washington principles, has been trying to make inroads among followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a religion with a heritage of battling government interference in its practices.

The strategy may be born of necessity. In Nevada, around one quarter of 2008 Republican caucusgoers were Mormon, according to AP exit polls. Paul’s campaign is counting on doing well enough there - and other caucus states that designate their delegates proportionally - to stay in the hunt for the nomination.

The Paul campaign launched an “LDS for Ron Paul’’ coalition featuring supporters mostly from Nevada and Utah. (He has similar coalitions for Protestants, homeschoolers, and farmers.) A Facebook page, Latter-day Saints for Ron Paul, is “liked’’ by more than 1,500 people. The campaign released a video featuring quotes from Mormon church leaders extolling the importance of the US Constitution.

But Paul, who has been campaigning throughout the past two days in Nevada, faces an uphill battle. The most recent poll from the Las Vegas Review-Journal shows him lagging Romney badly. And although the Mormon Church is neutral, Romney is extraordinarily popular among Mormons. He was a high-level church leader in Massachusetts and comes from a long line of prominent Mormons.

A recent survey of US Mormons conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 86 percent had a favorable view of Romney. A survey commissioned by professors at the University of Notre Dame, Brigham Young University, and the University of Akron in early January found 56 percent of Mormons nationally would vote for Romney, compared with 10 percent for Jon Huntsman, a Mormon who has since dropped out, and 10 percent for Paul.

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Quin Monson, associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, compared Mormons’ connection to Romney to the solidarity Catholics felt for John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. “Catholics of all stripes felt a sense of identity with John F. Kennedy and voted for him,’’ Monson said. “There’s a similar dynamic going on for Romney for Mormons. Even Mormons who don’t agree with Romney politically . . . there’s a sense that he’s taken one on the chin for Mormons.’’

Yet Paul supporters say religion is part of the reason they support the congressman. Stump said her faith places a strong emphasis on “free agency,’’ the idea that people can do what they want, within boundaries. Stump said Paul’s respect for individual freedom and limited government fit that principle.

“I believe our history and our principles, what America means and stands for, has a lot to do with freedom and free agency,’’ Stump said. “All the things [Paul] says and puts forth in Congress are to limit government, never to encroach upon the freedom of the individual.’’

Stump, 41, an artist who home-schools her children, said she learned more about freedom the last four years, which led her to Paul. “I totally respect Romney as a person and member of the church,’’ she said. “I don’t agree with his politics.’’

Nicolas Riley, 31, a chiropractor and practicing Mormon from Reno, supported Paul in 2008 and will do the same today. Riley is drawn to Paul’s focus on monetary policy, personal freedom, states’ rights, and balancing the budget. Riley believes Paul, an obstetrician, is the only candidate who will “get government out of doctor-patient relations.’’

Riley said he also likes Paul’s focus on upholding the Constitution. “My religion teaches me to value the Constitution of the US as an inspired document. God had a hand in us having a constitution,’’ Riley said.

Chloie Leavitt, 48, a Mormon homemaker from Overton, likes Paul’s opposition to the Federal Reserve and his emphasis on liberty. “As Latter-day Saints, we are supposed to have an obligation to stand up for our liberty and to do what we can to defend our liberty,’’ Leavitt said.

In 2008, Leavitt said that in her entire church, she knew only a handful of Paul supporters; everyone else supported Romney. “I was like a needle in a haystack,’’ she said.

This time, Leavitt senses slightly more non-Romney voters.

David Campbell, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, said the Mormon vote is not monolithic. And many Mormon voters agree with Paul’s ideas about not relying on government support. “I suspect in the West specifically, Paul would have more room to grow because you’re more likely to find a libertarian streak,’’ Campbell said.

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.

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