As lifelong members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Damian and Amy Anderson of Brandon do not consider religion a political issue.
Yes, the Andersons, both registered Republicans, plan to vote for Mitt Romney, a fellow Mormon, for president of the United States. But Romney's faith, they say, is not the deciding factor.
"For me, it's about the political issues," said Amy Anderson, 35. "It (Romney's religion) is a bigger deal for people that are not members of the faith. I want to make a bigger deal about the positive changes he can make. I wouldn't want to vote for anyone I thought was making changes based on religious influence."
The Andersons are among several people recently chosen by bay area Mormon leaders to speak to the media regarding the church and Romney's candidacy.
Throughout his run, Romney has spoken little about Mormon doctrine, leaving questions unanswered. He recently welcomed a few reporters, but no cameras, to attend church with him at a Mormon chapel in Wolfeboro, N.H. Still, beginning with his first run for the presidency, the candidate's religion has brought scrutiny from opponents and even conservatives within his own party.
Earlier this month, local Mormon wards, much like Protestant churches or congregations, hosted meetings to prepare church leaders to handle questions from the public and the media. Officials asked local leaders to make a list of 10 to 12 people to speak openly, said Mike Clayson, a counselor within the Brandon stake, which oversees wards from Sarasota to New Tampa.
"With the convention coming into town, we're preparing for what might happen, like how to respond if someone comes to one of the churches and wants to know what we're about," Clayson said.
The church itself, based in Salt Lake City, recently issued a statement of political neutrality.
The official policy, viewable at mormonnewsroom.org, says the church does not do the following: endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms; allow its church buildings, membership lists or other resources to be used for partisan political purposes; or attempt to direct its members as to which candidate or party they should give their votes to, or attempt to direct or dictate to a government leader.
Still, critics question whether the church will influence Romney's decisionmaking.
Seth McKee, the Department of History and Politics chairman at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said Romney's religion will probably be a factor come Election Day.
"It will matter a lot," McKee said. "The base of the Republican Party geographically is in the South, which is overtly Protestant and Baptist. It's a turnout question. Republicans aren't going to go for Obama, but it's a motivation question, and I think it's an issue. It won't go away."
Damian Anderson, a dentist in Lithia, said any concerns the public has are easily addressed.
"From a political standpoint, the only concern people should really have is that we have a prophet leading the church like Catholics have a pope, and I can understand people questioning will he (Romney) answer to that guy about things that affect me," said Anderson, 37. "That's not the case. He won't answer to the prophet for political things."
Wendy Croxall of Valrico, also a lifelong Mormon, said it is misguided for voters to worry about Romney's converting the nation.
"He's not trying to be pushy," Croxall, 37, said. "He's not trying to force anything on anyone."
Croxall, a graduate of the University of Tampa and a wife and stay-at-home mom, said having a Mormon in the White House could help people better understand the church.
"In the past, there's always been a stigma attached to being a Mormon," Croxall said. "I've already seen a difference between Romney's first time running and this nomination. This time, it seems people are a lot more open to it. People are beginning to realize it's a mainstream Christian religion."
McKee remains skeptical.
"As we'll see going into the RNC, Romney will express himself as this devout, faithful, Christian man, but we'll hear nothing specific about what it means to be a Mormon," McKee said. "This approach worked somewhat with the divide between Catholics and Protestants in the Republican Party, but I think that gap is a lot narrower than the gap between Protestants and Mormonism."
Church members confidently dismiss public misconceptions about Mormonism, including associating the religion with polygamy, a practice outlawed by the church in 1890. Churches are open to visitors, and doctrine is available at lds.org. Representatives say the key tenants of the faith are evident in Romney's character and values.
"People have interesting and ill-conceived ideas about members of our faith," Amy Anderson said. "I hope that people can focus on (Romney) as a candidate and the ideas he's proposing. For my husband and I, one of the big things is to get this country back on track financially."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or [email protected]