Mitt Romney to skip the Mormon speech?

WASHINGTON – Political pundits have been clamoring for Mitt Romney to give his big I’m-a-Mormon-but-it’s-OK speech, like President Kennedy did about his Catholic faith in 1960.

But if Romney decides to give such a speech – he says it’s more than likely that he will – there are perils in how he delivers it and what he addresses. Political observers say it can be risky to mix religion and politics, even more so for a candidate who is rising in the polls and needs to overcome the hurdle his faith may become.

Polls have shown a sizable number of voters are wary of supporting a Mormon – a faith viewed as a cult by some – and Romney may have to convince voters that his specific religion shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. However, there’s also a danger in stifling his momentum.

The Bible vs. The Book of Mormon.

“Clearly there could be a downside,” says John Green, a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “To the extent that Americans disagree with the Latter-day Saints, a speech that emphasized Romney’s Mormon ties could re-enforce that skepticism.”

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and leader of the successful 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, is often tagged with his religion in news stories unlike other contenders. Kennedy faced a similar problem in his presidential bid and took an opportunity to address his Catholic faith at a meeting of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.

“I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition of holding that office,” Kennedy said two months before the general election.

The speech helped and Kennedy was elected, but Green says there were campaign advisers who said the risk outweighed the benefit.

“There was an internal debate and many of Kennedy’s advisers were really worried about it,” Green says. “Now, of course it worked out. But many of his campaign advisers feared it would not.”

On the trail, news reporters seem to be the ones mainly bringing up Romney’s religion, though a few voters have raised questions about it as well. A few anonymous fliers also have surfaced bashing Romney’s faith and rival campaigns have apologized for attacks on Romney’s beliefs linked back to supporters or staffers for their candidate.

Romney’s campaign says there has been no formal decision whether there will be a speech.

The question, says Romney spokesman Kevin Madden, is what’s the goal of such a speech and is that outweighed by any potential downsides. Romney doesn’t want to give a speech that introduces him to potential voters as a Mormon instead of showcasing his strengths “across a spectrum of all the issues,” Madden says.

“The challenge we face is, do you become singularly defined by only one issue and that’s something that no candidate wants,” Madden said.

Romney is the one deciding whether to give the speech, Madden adds, not the staff.

When Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut became the first Jewish vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket, there was no evidence his faith would hurt the campaign, says Dan Gerstein, who served as Lieberman’s spokesman. Lieberman didn’t have to address his religion in a major speech.

But with Romney, there are rumblings that voters are uneasy about his faith, Gerstein says, and that may compel Romney to meet the issue head on. Of course, it could backfire.

“There’s a reason why people see this stuff as a risk,” Gerstein says. “There is always a danger that by elevating it and making it a big deal, you call more attention to it.”

More often, he adds, the default strategy, and the safest, is to ignore the below-the-surface concerns.

Romney sought advice last year from Richard Land, the president of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Land says it’s important Romney carefully craft any speech on his faith to address his presidential campaign, not get tangled in the debate over whether Mormonism is an orthodox Christian faith.

“He needs to say, ‘I’m a person of deep, personal faith and my faith’s important to me, and my faith will certainly guide and direct me if I’m elected president in the same way it did when I was governor,’ ” Land says.

He should stay clear of defending or explaining the faith’s doctrines, similar to how Kennedy said he did not speak for his church and his church did not speak for him.

“Jack Kennedy was the only one who could make millions of Americans feel comfortable voting for a Catholic,” Land says. “Only Mitt Romney can make millions of people feel comfortable voting for a Mormon.”

Many political observers say Romney may have to do that if there are still questions lingering as the primary season starts drawing near. But, as Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway says, if voters want to know about Mormonism, they should use an Internet search engine, not depend on Romney to explain the “ABCs of Mormonism.”

Conway, who is neutral in the 2008 race, says the speech only works if Romney gives “an earnest, no-notes explanation on how his religion has impacted him, his personal and professional choices, his value system, his views about government and core issues.”

Grover Norquist, a conservative leader and head of the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform, notes there are two ways to deliver the kind of speech Romney is being pressured to give. The first is to be on the defensive about the faith – which Norquist says could actually hurt Romney.

The second is to explain to voters that while they may not subscribe to his religion, the country should not get into the business of screening candidates by their specific faiths. That’s how Kennedy did it. He said that while he as a Catholic may be under fire, next could be a Jew, a Quaker, a Protestant or a Baptist.

“Today, I may be the victim,” Kennedy said, “but tomorrow it may be you – until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday August 27, 2007.
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