WASHINGTON -- Two weeks ago it was settled policy within Mitt Romney's campaign that his speech dealing with his Mormon faith would be delivered much later -- if at all -- and only after primary election victories. Romney suddenly overruled his advisers to undertake that risky venture today [Thursday] in College Station, Texas, for one reason: Mike Huckabee's ascent in Iowa.
Romney had been told by campaign strategists that flooding television screens with ads financed by his ample funds could win the critically important Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses for the former governor of Massachusetts in a state where Mormons comprise 0.5 percent of the population. That was working as Romney led the state's polls until former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, came from nowhere to challenge Romney for first place. Surveys detect substantial anti-Mormon bias.
Iowa is crucial to Romney's delicately balanced strategy to overcome anemic support nationally by winning first in Iowa and then in New Hampshire five days later. The snap decision to deliver the "Mormon speech" left intractable puzzles for the candidate to solve as he personally drafted the speech in private this week. How could he defend his lifelong religion without plunging into murky waters of theology? How could he plead for tolerance without branding those voting against him as bigots? (Incidentally, why is he delivering the speech deep in the heart of Texas, instead of somewhere in Iowa?)
Romney's Mormon problem has been obvious for two years, though just two months ago he was still in denial, claiming only journalists asked him about his religion. One month ago, he changed his tune, telling campaign contributors he liked "the idea" of a speech but "at some point" in the future because "the political advisers" tell him "it's not a good idea."
These advisers still think it's a bad idea, recommending that any speech should have been preceded by Romney winning in Iowa, New Hampshire or both. They think Romney is overreacting to the surge of Huckabee, who probably tops out at 25 percent in Iowa. They believe Huckabee's support is pro-Evangelical rather than anti-Mormon, boosted by his support of "fair tax" reform to eliminate the federal income tax (countermanding his high tax record in Arkansas).