Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- When Mitt Romney appeared last week (via closed circuit from California) before the Council of Retired Chief Executives meeting in Washington, he faced kindred souls: rich Republicans who had managed big enterprises. Yet the second question from the audience inquired whether Romney's Mormon faith was hurting his quest for the Republican presidential nomination. He replied that about the only people who brought up his religion were members of the news media, an answer that simply is untrue.

Romney is asked about Mormonism wherever he goes. In my travels, I find his religious preference cited everywhere as the source of opposition to his candidacy. His response to the former CEOs that only reporters care about this issue sounded like a politician's tired evasion. Romney was indicating that either he was too obtuse to appreciate his problem or was stalling because he had not determined how to deal with it. Contact with his advisers indicates the latter is the case.

Although disagreement remains within the Romney camp, the consensus is that he must address the Mormon question with a speech deploring bias. According to campaign sources, a speech has been written, though 90 percent of it could still be changed. It is not yet determined exactly what he will say or at what point he will deliver a speech that could determine the political outcome of 2008.

Romney would seem the near perfect Republican candidate: articulate, handsome, able to raise funds and write his own checks. He has become sufficiently conservative on social issues where he once strayed leftward. He is the only Republican candidate unequivocally opposed to gay marriage and the only one who signed the no tax increase pledge. He is acceptable enough to non-Republicans to have been elected governor of very "blue" Massachusetts and then, unlike three GOP predecessors, actually governed as a Republican.

But last year I began to hear from loyal Republicans that they could never vote for Romney because of his religion. When I asked Romney about this in April 2006, he was in denial. I subsequently wrote on April 27, 2006, that Romney must make "a stronger response than he now envisions" -- a declaration that "the imposition of a religious test on U.S. politics is unfair, unreasonable and un-American." That was disputed by e-mails sent to me by self-professed Republicans who insisted Mormonism is a cult.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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