Does anyone ask Hillary Clinton to describe her underwear?

Of course not. But Sen. Clinton isn’t a Mormon and, more importantly, she’s not a Republican.

Mitt Romney is both, which is why a reporter with the prestigious Atlantic Monthly felt no qualms asking the Massachusetts governor about his unmentionables.

A former South Carolina GOP political consultant now hosting a daily talk show in Boston, I am forever asked by political pundits whether or not “your people” will vote for “one of them.” Translation: Will South Carolina evangelicals vote for a Mormon?

Which brings us back to Mitt’s skivvies.

The underwear in question is more formally known as a “Temple Garment,” worn by devout Mormons and, as described to me by a Mormon friend, designed to protect their nether regions from Satan’s clutches through special blessings applied directly to the cloth (“They don’t say Hanes until Jesus says they say Hanes!”)

To the average non-Mormons, the concept of the “Garment” is odd, even kooky. To evangelicals who take their theology seriously, it is a concrete symbol of the large and irreparable theological rift between Mormonism and Christianity.

Is that rift large enough to keep Mitt Romney from winning the South Carolina GOP primary? Will fear of an Osmond-family cabal in the White House drive evangelicals into the McCain camp, or even to Giuliani?

In a word, “no.”

There are a dozen superficial reasons why Romney will play well in South Carolina: His “central casting” presidential good looks; his gorgeous wife and their five strapping sons; his record of business success and his highly-praised oversight of the 2002 Olympics. Chris Matthews may not have picked up on this yet, but rich, handsome, successful white guys aren’t exactly anathema to Southern conservatives.

And the “religion” issue? Romney won’t be competitive in South Carolina despite his Mormonism. He will do well here because of it.

When it comes to religion, most political pundits are about as well informed as Howard Dean, who famously declared during his presidential bid that his favorite book in the New Testament was Job.

Yes, it’s true that most evangelicals do not consider Mormons Christians. Yes, many would even classify Mormonism as a “cult.” Media pundits hear that and jump to the conclusion that Southern conservatives are never going to cast a vote for John Travolta or Tom Cruise.

This misses the mark entirely. In America today, where religion and faith are under constant media assault, the question evangelical voters are asking isn’t “Christian vs. Jew” or “Methodist vs. Mormon,” but rather “God or no God?” For values voters, the battle is between people who value faith and those who either ignore it or are actively hostile towards it.

Romney is an ally to evangelicals not because he is or isn’t a Christian, but because he’s a conservative who believes in God and takes his faith seriously. He’s on the “God Squad,” the group of Americans who consider faith an essential part of a serious life. That puts Mitt Romney on the evangelicals’ team, regardless of their theological differences.

Mormonism also benefits from the positive behavior of its members. Mormon teachings — magic rocks and golden tablets and Jesus roaming Utah with a lost Indian tribe — may strike evangelicals as a bit loony, but from a lifestyle standpoint, the only difference between Mitt Romney and a Southern Baptist is that Romney really will turn down a free drink.

Don’t believe me? Think backing a Mormon is pushing Bible-thumpers just a bit too far? Then explain to me why the most popular Democrat among Southern evangelicals today is Joe Lieberman.

If you haven’t noticed, Sen. Lieberman doesn’t spend a lot of time attending Wednesday night Bible study. Yet evangelicals admire him because he takes his Judaism seriously.

So does Mitt Romney — and he looks good doing it, too. Unlike some all-too-devout Christians who’ve run for president (Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes), Mitt Romney doesn’t give off the “religion makes me weird” vibe. He’s articulate, faithful, and personally appealing — a rare combination in political life.

Romney’s strategy for making South Carolina evangelicals feel comfortable supporting him has been flawless — almost. The glaring exception was choosing GOP establishment stooge Warren Tompkins to run his state campaign. In addition to his unimpressive political skills (best described by the oft-heard comment “Carroll Campbell was so good he could even make Warren Tompkins look smart!”), Tompkins is not particularly popular among Christian activists. For many politically-aware evangelicals, Tompkins embodies the “We only care about Christians on Election Day” attitude of country-club Republicans.

One of Romney’s strengths is his ability to counter this fear among faith-based voters, to come across as both an establishment guy and a candidate earnest about his faith.

Mitt Romney may not be able to make Southern Baptists feel good about Mormonism, but he can sure make them feel good about themselves.

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