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A Spark of Mormon Dissent in Romney Country

Mitt Romney campaigned in Arizona this week ahead of the state’s Feb. 28 Republican presidential primary. Polls show Romney way ahead in Arizona.

That’s in part because of the state’s large Mormon population.

But there is dissent in a place you might not expect.

In Arizona's White Mountains, an isolated spot between two Indian reservations, Mormon pioneer roots run more than a century deep.

"I have the gene. It's the gene of freedom and liberty," said Karen Johnson, a former state lawmaker, a loyal Ron Paul supporter, and part of the region's Mormon faithful.

"In our faith, we have been taught the Constitution is like unto scripture. That we should know and understand the Constitution as well as we understand the Bible, and we should seek and uphold righteous men"

For Johnson, that righteous man is clearly Congressman Paul. Mitt Romney may have the support of many Mormons here, but Johnson sees little to like.

"The term I use a lot is sheeple," she said, referring to the herd mentality of fellow Mormons.

"Because they’re not thinking for themselves. If they did, they would be supporting the one who supports the Constitution."

Johnson has a laundry list of complaints against Romney. She calls him a big-government conservative. She slams his foreign policy, especially Romney’s stance that he’d be willing to bomb Iran.

"It’s right there in black and white in the Book of Mormon," Johnson said. "We are supposed to be a people of peace."

In fact, there is a noticeable streak of Mormon libertarianism in the West, according to Hampden-Sydney College religion professor Matthew Bowman.

"I call this a sort of moralistic Mormon libertarianism," he explained. "A lot of people believe that libertarianism actually lines up better with Mormon doctrine than the mainstream political parties do, and they are quite vehement."

The Ron Paul campaign has actively courted this type of Mormon voter. Paul made small inroads in this year’s Nevada caucus, getting 5 percent of Mormon support. That's higher than 2008.

Meanwhile, Romney lost 7 percent of the Mormon vote in Nevada.

Romney is still overwhelmingly popular among Mormons. But it seems he is paying attention. At a campaign rally in Mesa, Ariz., this week, he touted the nation's founding documents.

"They were either inspired by God, or written by brilliant people, or perhaps a combination of both those things. But we have in those documents the way forward for America," Romney said.

It’s one more reason why Romney is a formidable candidate in Arizona, and the White Mountains. In Arizona’s 2008 primary, Romney beat home-state Senator John McCain in just three counties -- all in Eastern Arizona.

You can count Janette Larsen among his supporters.

"We love to talk politics at our house," she said, calling her 15-year-old son, John, up from the family's basement in Linden, Ariz. "What are your opinions on the primary for the Republicans? Who would you vote for?"

"Romney," he said.

Larsen says she’ll vote for Romney, not because he’s a fellow Mormon, but because she considers him a moderate.

"I would hope people would put a lot of research and thought and even prayer into the person they choose to support," she said. "I don’t think it needs to be based on religion, because obviously in any religion there’s a difference in opinion on how to get things done."

But for Larsen’s husband, John, religion plays a bigger role in the way he’ll vote. He’s a church leader, a social conservative, and still undecided on a candidate. Just like many Mormons, he has a religious respect for the U.S. Constitution and its authors.

"I believe they wrote it under influence, inspiration, whatever word you want to use, of the Almighty for this land to be set aside as his nation, as his promise land."

There's a difference between Larsen, and Ron Paul supporter Karen Johnson. Larsen believes Mitt Romney would do just fine protecting the Constitution.