WASHINGTON — Rose Kramer was at her Dubuque, Iowa, home, waiting for the TV show "House" to start at 8 p.m. Tuesday when a pollster called and started asking her about John McCain. After a few polite questions, the caller started saying unflattering things about Mitt Romney.
In another part of Iowa, Ralph Watts got a similar call the next day. Are you aware, the caller asked, that Mormons consider the Book of Mormon superior to the Bible? Would that make you more or less likely to vote for Romney?
On Friday, the calls, which lit up the phone lines in the two key early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire this week, became the target of Romney's outrage, as well that of as his Republican rivals, and the subject of a formal inquiry by the New Hampshire attorney general's office.
The calls, a year before the election, were a vivid reminder of how ugly the 2008 presidential campaign could become and how Romney's Mormon religion could play an important role.
McCain strongly denied having anything to do with the calls, saying "it is disgraceful, it is outrageous and it is a violation, we believe, of New Hampshire law." The Arizona senator's complaint Friday triggered the New Hampshire action.
"We are looking at whether the calls qualify as push polls," said Assistant Attorney General James Kennedy.
Push polling is so named because the surveyors first ask standard questions, such as a first or second electoral choice. But they quickly begin mentioning negatives about a candidate and ask if that would make the voter more or less likely to back that candidate. They "push" the caller toward a negative conclusion, in short.
New Hampshire has a nine-year-old law requiring anyone who engages in push polling to tell the person being surveyed if the call is "being made on behalf of, in support of or in opposition to" a candidate.
They also must identify the candidate and give the phone number where the call originated. Failing to do so could be a felony. No one has ever been prosecuted under the law.
The calls reportedly were placed by Western Wats, an Orem, Utah-based survey research firm. In a statement, the company said it "has never, currently does not, nor will it ever engage in push polling."
In the offensive polls, voters reported identical patterns.
"They started by asking about 15 or 20 questions about different candidates," recalled Sabrina Matteson, a New Hampshire Farm Bureau editor who got a call Wednesday evening.
Soon, the undecided Republican said, the caller noted that Romney's five sons had never served in the military and asked if that gave her a more or less favorable view of him.
"What kind of question is that?" Matteson said she responded. After another question or two she got increasingly angry, finally telling the caller, "You should be ashamed of yourself. How do you look at yourself in the mirror?"
In Iowa, Watts, a state representative from Adel, was in his office around 5:30 that evening. The caller, Watts recalled, "said, 'If you knew Mitt Romney was a member of the Mormon church, would that make you more or less likely to vote for him?'''
Watts figured that was a fair question (a Romney supporter, he said "more likely"). The caller gradually got negative. Were you aware, the caller asked, that a lot of people didn't like Romney's health care program in Massachusetts? Are you aware that Mormons consider the Book of Mormon superior to the Bible?
After a while, the caller spoke of McCain, saying nice things about him.
The issue of Romney's religion is highly sensitive. He's seeking to become the first Mormon in the White House, and national polls have found that many voters are likely to oppose him because of his religion.
The Romney camp was outraged Friday.
"Whichever campaign is engaging in this type of awful religious bigotry as a line of political attack, it is repulsive and, to put it bluntly, un-American," said Romney communications director Matt Rhoades.
There was no clear evidence, though, that any opponent was behind the polls.
"There is no room for this kind of smut in a Republican primary election," said Todd Harris, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson's communications director.
"Our campaign does not support or engage in these types of tactics, and it is our hope other campaigns will adhere to the same policy," said Katie Levinson, the communications director for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
If the push polling had any apparent impact, it may have been to discredit politics further.
Kramer, a Romney supporter, got so angry that she missed the opening of her show.
"I was still ranting at my husband," she said.