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.
Despite his response to the retired CEOs, Romney is no longer in denial. A Newsweek poll shows 28 percent of Americans would not vote for any member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- demonstrating much greater hostility than to a Jewish or African-American candidate. Mormonism is the only minority category where bias in America has deepened.
This prejudice may explain why Romney trails competitors in national polls. But nobody has emerged as the Republican establishment choice. Rudy Giuliani offends social conservatives. John McCain seems a spent force. Fred Thompson has not yet fulfilled his promise. What's more, Romney leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, where victories would propel him ahead in national polls and likely nominate him. Will the Grand Old Party find itself with a nominee who cannot be elected because of his religion?
It is certain that sooner or later, Romney will address the nation. His task is vastly more complicated than John F. Kennedy's was on Sept. 12, 1960, when he told the Greater Houston Ministerial Council that as president he would not take orders from the pope. Romney will no more attempt explaining Mormon theology than Kennedy ventured into Roman Catholic doctrine. He will do what I wrote 17 months ago he must do: deplore a religious test as un-American.
Romney will have but one shot to get it right, with no chance for a mulligan. Some supporters think he should speak (as in the case of JFK) only if and when he is nominated. More likely, it will come earlier. One key adviser sees the optimum time after an early victory in Iowa when he becomes the front-runner. Whenever, it would be the single most important campaign speech for Mitt Romney -- or any candidate.