McCain, Romney Advisers Spar Over Mormon Religion

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 9, 2007; 9:38 PM

The tension between the campaigns of Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was palpable when Harvard University gathered together top GOP strategists last month.

The issue was Romney's Mormon religion and for a few minutes, the audience was transfixed by an exchange between McCain advisers Bill McInturff and Stuart Stevens and Romney advisers Alex Castellanos and Ben Ginsberg.

The discussion underscored the deep sensitivity within the former governor's campaign about the potential impact of his religion on his presidential aspirations.

The exchange took place on March 5, during a three-hour discussion about the 2008 campaign featuring a dozen advisers representing McCain, Romney and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The content of the session, sponsored jointly by the Institute of Politics and the Joan Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School of Government, was embargoed until a transcript was released on Monday.

The episode began when McInturff observed that it seems acceptable to talk about Mormons and the Mormon religion in ways that would not be acceptable talking about members of other religions. He also made a pointed reference to Romney's poll numbers:

"What's amazing about their numbers," McInturff said, "is here is a guy who is a former governor, a successful business guy, and he [has] a net negative rating and every month his negatives are going up nationally while he is running a fairly decent campaign, now why is that? Because what's allowed is -- you are allowed to talk about the Mormon religion in a way that you could never in this country do . . . if he was Jewish."

Stevens, a McCain media adviser, picked up on what McInturff said, seemingly sounding a sympathetic note about what may be a problem for Romney's campaign. "Mitt Romney is not saying elect me because I'm Mormon and I think that is an important distinction," he said.

But Castellanos didn't see the McCain team's comments as sympathetic to his candidate. He saw them as a backhanded way to put the issue of Romney's religion into play. "I appreciate the defense today just as much as I appreciate the attacks by the other folks," he said icily. "It's awfully nice to be able to whack an opponent and defend him in the same breath."

Advisers for both campaigns agreed that the media has contributed to this problem by highlighting polls that show, for example, that a third of voters say they are less likely to vote for a candidate who happens to be a Mormon. But Castellanos would not let got of his contention that Romney's rivals were feeding that story line by decrying it.

Castellanos said he found it interesting that the campaigns of the two best-known GOP candidates appeared anxious to define the lesser-known Romney at least in part through his religion, saying they knew well the political implications of focusing on that topic.

"One of the good ways to do that . . . [and] I would say it reveals something about their campaigns as well is [to say] of, for heaven's sakes, don't attack him for being a Mormon," he said.

Mark Halperin, one of the session's moderators, asked advisers to McCain and Giuliani whether they would pledge not to let anyone affiliated with their campaigns communicate negatively with voters about the Mormon religion. When McCain campaign CEO Rick Davis and Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime vowed not to do so, Ginsberg replied: "When is this on the record?"

That brought the exchange to an end, but not before it was clear how touchy Romney campaign officials are about the religion issue and how concerned they appear to be that rival campaigns will continue to stoke it in coming months -- their pledges notwithstanding.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company