It's a good bet that the Republican delegation from Utah suffers fewer hangovers per capita than that of any other state gathered in Tampa Bay this week. And based on conversations Wednesday with the Utahns gushing about adopted home state son Mitt Romney, it's the delegation most likely to use exclamations such as "golly!" and "for Pete's sake!"
The 78 Utah delegates and alternates staying at the Hilton Tampa Airport Westshore not only share personal ties to Romney through his leadership of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, but they are overwhelmingly Mormon. That means they eschew alcohol and caffeine, and they understand far better than most what makes Romney tick.
"People who think Mitt doesn't understand the common man have never met a Mormon bishop,'' said delegate and businessman Steve Lund, referring to Romney's stint as a volunteer bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the 1980s in Boston.
"When you're a bishop, you find yourselves embroiled in people's lives, usually the most tender, most difficult issues of a lifetime," Lund said. "You're sitting across the table from a guy, helping him deal with losses of loved ones, economic challenges, losing a job, losing a home — kids are running amok and the wife's dying. He's been in these homes. He knows these people. He knows the pain that exists in society. To characterize him as aloof is nonsense."
Mormonism is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world but also one of the least understood.
Romney and his campaign have been uncomfortable discussing his faith, though in many respects it defines some of the most appealing aspects of Romney and his family. Central to Mormonism is giving back to the community and helping others.
"Utah's small enough that everybody knows somebody who's close to Mitt, and you can't go far in our state without meeting somebody who has a first-hand experience with him doing something generous or thoughtful — but always behind the scenes," said delegate David Harmer.
While Democrats paint Romney as a cold-hearted venture capitalist more consumed with profits than people, his faith requires him to give back to the community and help his fellow man. People who know him well say his life has been filled with charity and good deeds that he never talks about.
"In our religion, you don't go out and publicly say, 'Here are the good deeds I've done.' You do them quietly," said former U.S. Rep. Enid Mickelsen, a Republican national committeewoman. "I think it's been hard for Mitt to find the balance between sharing with people who he is and what his heart is, what sorts of things he's done to help people, and feeling like doing that is simply bragging."
Like all Mormon men, Romney spent two years as a missionary abroad, France in his case. He went to Brigham Young University and has family in Utah and deep ties to the state. That helps explain why Utah's delegation has been treated to A-list speakers, including Texas Senate nominee Ted Cruz and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Delegates at the Hilton doubted that Romney would spend much time discussing his religion today when he accepts his party's nomination at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Most suggested it's more important to explain his values and his plans to turn around the economy than to delve into his faith.
Still, they said, the church is at the core of how Romney lives his life.
"I hope he does talk about it. All he's got to explain to people is that Mormons, all we're trying to do is live and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ," said Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a former Mormon bishop himself.
"On the one hand, we do try and help explain (the church) to others who are interested. But we don't brag about paying tithe. We don't brag about things we do as a bishop or state president. Those are confidential things. When people come to talk to us for advice and counsel on everything from sexual problems to economic problems, nobody's ever going to hear that from a bishop," said Hatch, noting that serving as a volunteer bishop for three to five years can mean 40 hours a week helping others.
"It also helps us to grow when we serve in those positions. It helps us learn more about human beings and humankind. It helps us become more compassionate and considerate."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]