By Michael D. Shear and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
MANCHESTER, N.H., Dec. 3 -- Fighting to save his faltering presidential campaign, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said Monday that he will reassure Republican voters that his religious values are the same as theirs and that he believes faith has a place in political life and governing.
Rather than hoping that voters will look past his Mormon beliefs, Romney will confront the issue of his faith directly in a speech on Thursday, stressing what he calls a "common heritage" in America that unites people of different religions around a common set of moral beliefs.
"I'm concerned that faith has disappeared in many respects from the public square," Romney said at a town hall meeting here. "I want to make sure that we maintain our religious heritage in this country -- not of a particular brand of faith, if you will, not a particular sect or denomination, but rather the great moral heritage that we have."
It is a different message from the one John F. Kennedy delivered 47 years ago in what was considered a turning point in his presidential campaign. In that speech, Kennedy sought to save his bid to become the nation's first Roman Catholic president by promising Americans that he would not mix the religious and the secular or take directions from the pope.
Half a century later, Romney, another Massachusetts politician, faces questions about his religion that could doom his presidential ambitions. But his audience is as different from Kennedy's as is his message.
To emerge from a crowded and unsettled field of Republican candidates, Romney must convince evangelical voters and Christian conservatives that as a Mormon he shares the same moral underpinnings they have, even if the teachings and traditions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it is officially known, are foreign to them. And he must do it, his top advisers believe, without engaging in a point-by-point theological argument.
Romney said Monday that he will not attempt to be a "spokesman for my faith," despite the curiosity of many about the church's distinctive traditions, which are centered around the belief that its founding prophet, Joseph Smith, found golden tablets in Upstate New York transcribed with a sacred text and left behind by ancient Israelites who once inhabited America.
"I'm not running for pastor in chief," he told reporters. Pressed to say more about his speech, Romney smiled broadly and said, "Ahhh, you are just going to have to wait and see."
The Mormon Church is estimated to have nearly 6 million members nationwide -- about 2 percent of the U.S. population. The church has no full-time clergy, relying instead on laymen to lead local congregations (a role Romney has served). The church discloses little about temple rituals or its financial holdings, which are thought to be extensive.
Questions about Romney's faith -- he would be the first Mormon president -- have swirled around his campaign. Romney has for months publicly expressed little desire to confront the issue directly, usually referring questions about his faith to Web sites run by the church.
But there are only 30 days left until the Iowa caucuses, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, has surged into the lead in that state largely by courting religious voters. Romney and his advisers have decided that he can no longer ignore the elephant in the room. The speech, to be given at the George H.W. Bush presidential library at Texas A&M University, will be titled "Faith in America."
Aides said the latest polls, showing Huckabee in the lead, had no bearing on the decision, which they said Romney made a week ago. They said he wrote a draft of the speech Thursday night at a hotel in Boca Raton, Fla., a day after last week's CNN-YouTube debate. On Saturday, he and his top advisers went through the draft "paragraph by paragraph" while they were stuck in Des Moines during a snowstorm.
But Huckabee's strength in Iowa, particularly among evangelical voters, is the latest sign that Romney's efforts to appeal to the Republican Party's conservative base have failed in at least one key respect. In Iowa, religious voters make up as much as 40 percent of caucuses, making that vulnerability potentially fatal to his campaign in that state.
"He's speaking to an audience of social conservatives who want to hear that his faith informs what he does, and he lives in an environment where every candidate is expected to say that, especially so in this case since he's been running as a social conservative," said David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame.
Campbell said it is not surprising that Romney would take a different approach than Kennedy's. "The political environment has changed too much, and his previous statements and the way he's run his campaign aren't going to allow him to do what Kennedy did," said Campbell, who is Mormon.
Romney's top advisers portrayed their candidate's decision to talk directly about his religion as a very private one in which they offered advice and then backed off. "It's like telling someone who they should marry," one top aide said. "It's kind of personal."
And while they support Romney's decision, his advisers acknowledged that there are risks in highlighting a sensitive issue that can provoke passionate responses on all sides.
Romney's speech is sure to be received poorly by some in the general electorate who see a bright line between religion and governing. The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said many Americans are discomfited at the thought of Romney's religious values being the driver of his actions and policies as president.
"This is an indefensible position for a candidate to take and would be wildly different than Kennedy's brilliantly articulated address," Lynn said. "If he's talking about values, he ought to be talking about the values of the Constitution, not his personal religious values."
And as Romney seeks to assure evangelical voters that his fundamental religious values and beliefs are not so different from theirs, there is the chance that some within his own faith -- which has provided a linchpin of financial support for his candidacy -- will accuse him of misrepresenting Mormonism and blurring distinctions to curry favor.
In the first three quarters of this year, Romney received $4.8 million in contributions from residents of Utah, more than from his home state of Massachusetts, and more than from any other state except California. Utah is about 60 percent Mormon. And the political action committees he used to prepare the way for his run were fueled by six-figure checks from wealthy Mormons such as the Marriott hotel family.
There have been scattered criticisms among Mormon bloggers about some of Romney's statements on the trail. But many in the Mormon Church are sufficiently pragmatic and proud of Romney that they will probably resist criticizing him, Campbell said. "You may hear some grumbling among Mormon bloggers," he said, "but the overwhelming consensus is that Romney really is thought of as a pioneer."