Romney Taskes on Issue of Faith
By: Wall Street Journal
Speech Aims to Ease Uncertainty Over Mormonism and to Sway Evangelicals
By ELIZABETH HOLMES
WINDHAM, N.H. — The bustling activity of the Windham Junction Country Store stopped suddenly Tuesday morning when Tom Eifler addressed Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. “Later this week you’ll be talking about your Mormon background,” the 62-year-old said hesitantly and then asked Mr. Romney to comment on the “risk factor” of the speech.
“Yeah, actually, I’m gonna be talking about, uh…,” Mr. Romney said, at first faltering, then recovering, “faith in America.” He elaborated: “I’m not gonna be talking so much about my faith in America but the faith of our religious heritage.”
Later, Mr. Eifler, a Romney supporter, shook his head and whispered, “There’s a lot to be lost here.”
Mr. Romney’s address today, at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, will be one of the most closely watched of any so far in both parties’ campaigns. The candidate’s goal: to extinguish concerns about his Mormon faith that are damping support among his party’s powerful evangelical voting bloc.
Mr. Romney is expected to be as generic as possible, focusing on his upbringing and his family, avoiding the differences between his beliefs and those of other Christians.
Political analysts say Mr. Romney shouldn’t delve into specifics about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its history of polygamy and a reputation, to some, of being cult-like. “Evangelicals regard Mormonism as a cult,” said Matthew Wilson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University and an expert on the religious right. “If he gets into talking about specific theology, he has gone off the track.” The church has about 5.7 million members in the U.S.
By not talking specifics, the former Massachusetts governor risks feeding into another image problem. Already criticized by other candidates for supposedly flip-flopping on issues such as abortion, he risks coming off as inauthentic on yet another issue.
And yet, with the Iowa caucuses less than a month away and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — a Southern Baptist minister and conservative Christian favorite — nipping at his heels there, Mr. Romney decided to speak about religion.
Since the speech was announced Sunday, Mr. Romney has been campaigning in New Hampshire, where evangelicals play less of a role than in the other early-voting states of Iowa or South Carolina. Mr. Romney delivered an abbreviated version of his stump speech four times and the same “Fiscal Responsibility in Washington” PowerPoint presentation at two Rotary luncheons on two different days.
While rarely asked about his faith, Mr. Romney dropped subtle lines as if to practice for today’s speech, which he says he wrote himself a week ago from a room in the Hilton Suites in Boca Raton, Fla.
“We’re by-and-large a God-fearing people,” he told workers just off the line at a plastic-crate manufacturing plant in Raymond, N.H. “Even those who don’t believe in God believe in something bigger than themselves. A purpose-driven life, if you will.”
In Manchester the day before, Mr. Romney was equally vague when an audience member asked him about what he would say today. Mr. Romney said he would discuss faith, “not a particular brand of faith, not a particular sect or denomination but the great moral heritage we have.” At several points, he mentioned the “inalienable rights” given by the “founding fathers.”
A campaign staffer later said that, in preparation for today’s address, Mr. Romney read Jon Meacham’s “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation.” Mr. Romney is drawing on history while making more than a subtle nod to it. Comparisons have been made between Mr. Romney’s appearance today and a speech on religion by Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy in 1960. Both took place in Texas, both men had been badgered by the press to address their faith.
Yet the goal of Mr. Romney’s speech is very different. Mr. Kennedy’s Catholicism was well-known, if misunderstood. Mormonism is relatively new and unfamiliar. Mr. Kennedy, aspiring to be the country’s first Catholic leader, spoke about the separation of church and state to calm fears that he would follow the Pope’s orders.
Bruce Schulman, a professor of political history at Boston University says the question for Mr. Romney isn’t whether he will take orders from Salt Lake City. “I don’t think people want to know about Romney’s Mormonism,” Dr. Schulman said. “I think they want to know Romney is like them.” By focusing on his family — including his wife, Ann, and their five sons — Mr. Romney can help voters overlook his Mormonism and “stop the bleeding going towards Huckabee,” Dr. Schulman said.
Even voters who say Mr. Romney’s religion isn’t an issue for them recognize that, for some, it might be. After hearing Mr. Romney speak in Hampton, N.H., on Monday, Judi Arsenault and Trisha Plante stood toward the front of the auditorium and talked about the misconceptions of Mormonism. Ms. Plante, a 50-year-old teacher’s aide who is Catholic said, “I think, years ago, there was a big mystique about having wives, so many wives.”
“The Mormon church is so not a part of that at all any more,” said Ms. Arsenault, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom who is also Catholic. “That’s so not it.” Polygamy was practiced by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1800s, though it was prohibited in 1890.
The campaign says there is no link between the timing of the speech and the recent polls that give Mr. Huckabee a slight lead in Iowa, a state where Mr. Romney has led for months. Yet Mr. Huckabee is undermining a central part of Mr. Romney’s strategy for winning the nomination: becoming the more-acceptable alternative for evangelicals to front-runner Rudy Giuliani. The former New York mayor is pro-choice and has been married three times. “Romney became the default option for many evangelical Protestants,” said Dr. Wilson of Southern Methodist University.
For Mr. Romney to slow Mr. Huckabee’s momentum, a key will be to tout his electability. His organization, including paid staff and grass-roots effort, outdoes Mr. Huckabee’s in all of the early voting states. He also has considerably more money than his other opponents.
Mr. Romney’s best bet for winning the evangelical vote may be to face off on Feb. 5, known as Super Tuesday, against Mr. Giuliani, Dr. Wilson says, “But he has to get to that point.”
Write to Elizabeth Holmes at firstname.lastname@example.org
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