WASHINGTON _ Confronting head-on one of the biggest question marks around his possible presidential candidacy, Governor Mitt Romney declared yesterday that his Mormon faith would help him among evangelical Christians if he chooses to run for president in 2008.
Romney told a group of Washington-based newspaper and magazine reporters that while a ”small slice” of voters will probably never vote for a Mormon, Republicans in deeply religious states have shown a willingness to accept people of faith from all religions.
”Americans want people of faith to lead their country,” Romney said at a lunch sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. ”There are advantages and disadvantages that everybody brings. The advantage that my faith brings is that in some states, it will be of help.
Romney’s remarks were his most extensive public comments on the political impact of his religion and seemed designed to knock down speculation among political commentators and some religious leaders that his religion is a hurdle to his success. The comments were made at a lunch with about 50 reporters, including representatives of the Washington Post, USA Today, Time magazine, and the Financial Times.
At the lunch, Romney quickly corrected reporters’ suggestions that he was already a candidate for president, but he left little doubt that he is actively considering a national campaign. He offered expansive answers to questions about his political views and current events. He ignored his own meal and was careful to address each reporter who asked a question by his or her first name, and he made a few stabs at humor, reprising one of his oft-told jokes.
”I told Ann that I was coming here to talk to you today, and I said, ‘Sweetheart, in your wildest dreams, did you ever see me coming here and speaking to this group?’ And she said, ‘Mitt, you aren’t in my wildest dreams,’ ” Romney said.
After the lunch, he touted his plan to vastly expand health coverage in Massachusetts in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative advocacy group. He drew a distinction between his plan to cut the rolls of the uninsured through the private sector and what he called ”Hillarycare,” President Bill Clinton’s failed plan for universal health coverage that included new mandates for employers.
Though he voiced general support for President Bush, referring to him as ”a great president,” Romney also offered an uncharacteristically blunt assessment of some of the president’s policies.
Romney said Bush erred in not having more troops in place to deal with the insurgency that developed after Saddam Hussein was toppled. The president also should have made a broader case for ousting Hussein, instead of focusing on weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist, Romney said.
”There are plenty of places where I would separate from the administration, if that’s what you mean, where I would have chosen a different course,” Romney said when asked about his differences with Bush.
”Going in, we wouldn’t have rested our entire case on weapons of mass destruction, had we known that when we got there, we wouldn’t be able to find them,” Romney said of the US invasion of Iraq. ”We probably would have explained to the American people in great depth — and the world community — the broader set of reasons for the president’s decision to enter Iraq.”
The governor also broke with Bush over one of the president’s most cherished domestic-policy accomplishments: the Medicare prescription drug benefit that was launched this month. He said it was ”really troubling” that Bush created a giant new federal program without finding a way to pay for it.
”It’s a new entitlement program, and I would have wanted to finance that entitlement with reforms and changes and adjustments in the overall program,” Romney said. ”I don’t want to add entitlements. I want to find ways to reform our entitlement programs.”
On abortion, Romney repeated his explanation that he’s in a ”different place” on the issue than he was during his 1994 Senate campaign, where he resisted being labeled either ”prolife” or ”prochoice.” Now, he said, he is ”firmly prolife,” but he said he did not know when the soul is first present in a fetus.
”Life, from a scientific standpoint, begins at conception,” the governor said. ”I don’t know when the soul, if you’re religious, when the soul enters the body. My church doesn’t teach that by the way — doesn’t have an opinion on it.”
The only other time Romney spoke at one of the regular newsmaker events organized by the Christian Science Monitor was during his 1994 Senate campaign, and that time his father, George Romney, was at his side. In talking about religion yesterday, he quickly mentioned his late father’s run for president.
Romney cited his father’s early lead in polls during the 1968 presidential campaign and said that the ”great majority” of Republicans don’t care what a candidate’s religion is, as long as he or she is religious. He pointed out that Nevada and Oregon currently have US senators who are Mormons and that Mormons are loyal Republican voters.
Mitt Romney has long been active in the Mormon faith. He was bishop of his church in Belmont for four years, oversaw all Mormon congregations in Greater Boston for nine years, and has traveled to temples around the world to perform sacraments.
The influential conservative group Focus on the Family has said that the Christian concept of God is not compatible with the Mormon’s concept of God, and the Southern Baptist Convention has labeled the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a ”cult” that is ”radically” different from biblical Christianity.
Romney also said he believes that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York will beat Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts for the Democratic nomination in 2008.