Romney's Risky Venture

Robert Novak

12/6/2007 12:01:00 AM - Robert Novak

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).

To schedule the speech at the George H.W. Bush presidential library at Texas A&M University is puzzling. Romney aides say it was the idea of Ron Kaufman, longtime Republican National committeeman from Massachusetts and faithful aide to the elder Bush. Kaufman told me it was scheduled there because Romney had mentioned a possible speech on religion when he spoke at the Bush library in April. Others in the campaign indicate the paramount reason is that Romney will be introduced in Texas by the former president, in what might be interpreted as a tacit endorsement. Romney's Iowa supporters would have preferred the candidate speaking in their state, addressing an audience of voters.

But what can Romney say? He will no more explore Mormon theology than John F. Kennedy dissected Catholic doctrine in his 1960 Houston speech to Protestant preachers, and he will avoid the slippery slope of discussing whether a Mormon is a Christian. Huckabee should not be criticized for dodging that question from George Stephanopoulos on ABC Sunday. To answer that Romney is a Christian would have earned the former Baptist preacher obloquy from Protestant and Catholic clergy alike.

All that is left for Romney to write is a speech that asserts the Constitution imposes no religious test for the presidency. However, that runs the risk of implicitly indicting anyone who votes against Mitt Romney as a bigot. As he awaited the Texas speech this week without knowing what Romney will say, one adviser hoped that the candidate would come across as a man of faith and integrity.

That adviser is hoping to reverse Romney's performance in last week's dismal Republican presidential debate at St. Petersburg, Fla. Romney no longer is called the perfect candidate hampered solely by religious prejudice. After a half-hour immigrant-bashing duel with Rudy Giuliani, he looked like somebody who would say anything to be nominated. At College Station today, Romney will try to correct that impression, even if he does not win over bigots.