MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Mitt Romney's allies lashed out at former White House strategist Steve Bannon on Wednesday, a day after he said at an Alabama rally that Romney and his family "hid behind" their Mormon religion to avoid military service.
Sen. Orrin Hatch and other prominent Utah Republicans criticized Bannon for comments they said amounted to an ill-informed attack on the Mormon faith. Romney received a draft deferment during the Vietnam War while doing missionary work, which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints strongly encourages for young men.
"I'd be more than happy to sit down with Mr. Bannon and help him understand more about the LDS Church at his convenience. I've got a copy of the Book of Mormon with his name on it," Hatch, a Mormon, said in a statement.
The dispute was tied to the nest of politics entangling the Utah and Alabama Senate seats and the larger GOP civil war.
Hatch, 83, is believed to be considering retirement, and Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who now lives in Utah, is eyeing a run. That makes him a target for Bannon, an anti-establishment firebrand who has vowed to defeat several Republican Senate incumbents in next year's midterm elections because, in his view, they haven't done enough to support President Donald Trump's policies.
Romney fiercely criticized Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and recently denounced Bannon's preferred candidate in the Alabama Senate race. Romney said Monday that electing GOP candidate Roy Moore, who is accused of molesting two girls decades ago when he was a deputy district attorney in his 30s, would be "a stain on the GOP and on the nation." Moore has denied the women's accusations and has rejected calls to leave the race before the Dec. 12 election.
In a curious twist, just as his former political adviser was slamming Romney, Trump was on the phone with the 2012 GOP presidential nominee. Two people familiar with the conversation say that Trump and Romney discussed taxes and other issues and that Bannon's name did not come up.
The people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the private call.
It was unclear whether Trump and Romney discussed the Utah or Alabama Senate seats. Earlier in the week, Trump urged Hatch, already the longest-serving Republican senator in history, to seek an eighth term next year, at least in part to block Romney's Senate ambitions.
Bannon drew loud cheers at a Moore rally in Alabama on Tuesday night when he charged that Romney used his religion to avoid military service. He noted that Moore graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, while Romney received a draft deferment for his missionary work in France.
"You hid behind your religion," Bannon said. "Do not talk to me about honor and integrity."
Bannon also touched on Romney's presidential bid and family in his criticism.
"You ran for commander in chief and had five sons — not one day of service in Afghanistan or Iraq. We have 7,000 dead and 52,000 casualties, and where were the Romneys during those wars?" Bannon asked. He added, "Judge Roy Moore has more honor and integrity in his pinky finger than your entire family."
Bannon served in the Navy after the Vietnam War. He later worked as a strategist for Trump, who obtained deferments during the Vietnam War for his education and for bone spurs. Neither of Trump's adult sons served in the military.
Romney's eldest son, Tagg Romney, declined to respond to Bannon's remarks, but several Utah Republicans defended the Romney family.
Hatch called Bannon's verbal assault "disappointing and unjustified."
"I also resent anyone attacking a person's religious views, but particularly our own Christian LDS faith and the selfless service of missionary work," Hatch said in his statement.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, tweeted that Romney and his family "represent the best of Utah values."
"Utahns rejects the ugly politics and tactics" of Bannon, he added.
The state's junior Republican senator, Mike Lee, said, "You can't credibly call into question (Romney's) patriotism or moral character — especially on the basis of his religious beliefs or his outstanding service as a missionary."
Miller reported from Washington.