Can Romney rise to top of GOP presidential pack?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On paper, Mitt Romney should be a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination: He can boast successes as an executive in business, in saving the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, and as governor of Massachusetts, in a country that in recent decades has tended to elect governors president.

Mr. Romney is telegenic and articulate, and presents the all-American family – wife Ann, five sons, five daughters-in-law, 10 grandchildren. And in a race where early money is more important than ever, he raised $6.5 million in just one day in January, soon after announcing his exploratory committee. He also has more congressional backers (26) than even top contender Sen. John McCain of Arizona (who has 21), according to a Los Angeles Times survey.

But to a majority of Americans, he is either "Mitt Who?" or if they have heard of him, they don't have an opinion. In national polls of GOP voters, he posts single digits, trailing far behind the front- runners for his party's nomination.

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So, after Romney's formal announcement of candidacy on Tuesday, the question is: Can he be a giant-killer and grab the Republican nomination from his far-better-known rivals, Senator McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani?

Of course he can, analysts say. It's early. Anything is possible. But along the way, he will face significant hurdles. The factor getting the most attention is his Mormon faith, and polls that show a significant portion of Americans saying they would not be willing to elect a Mormon president. The latest poll, released by Gallup on Tuesday, found that 24 percent of Americans would not be willing to vote for a "generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be Mormon" in the general election.

A similar question, asked in a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll in December, put the number at 14 percent. And perhaps most relevant to Romney's chances of getting the GOP nomination, that poll found that 25 percent of white Evangelical Protestants – a key constituency in the Republican primaries – are unwilling to vote for a Mormon.

"That's not insurmountable, but it's worth paying attention to," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Some analysts may be overstating the impact of Romney's religious affiliation, he adds, "but it will be incumbent upon him to put it to rest."

The Romney campaign says he is seriously considering delivering a speech that addresses the religion question head on, the way John Kennedy addressed his Catholicism in a speech before the 1960 election. As with candidate Kennedy, Romney faces concerns that he would have dual allegiances, to both his church and the Constitution.

But for Romney, the Mormon issue has another dimension: Some Evangelicals view the religion as a cult, and even non-Christian; there is resentment over recruitment of Evangelicals into the church formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Asked about his religion Wednesday on NBC's "Today Show," Romney said, "Well, I think I've found that people across this country want a person of faith to lead the country. And they don't particularly care as much about the brand of faith as they do about the values the person has. And my values are as American as you can imagine."

Romney has spent months wooing religious conservative leaders to ease their comfort level not only with his particular faith, but also with another dimension of his campaign that may prove to be a larger hurdle among conservative GOP primary voters: Romney's wholesale change of view on top social issues – abortion, gay rights, and stem cell research.

Where he once came down on the liberal end of those issues – likely the only way he could have been elected statewide in solid blue Massachusetts – he says he has had a change of heart. His opponents call that flip-flopping, suspiciously just in time to run for president. And, like Mr. McCain and Mr. Giuliani, who also have problems with the social conservative base of the GOP, he has his work cut out for him, convincing the base his conversion is for real.

Gary Bauer, a religious conservative activist who ran for president in 2000, argues for taking Romney at his word.

"The whole pro-life movement has been about trying to change minds, so we've got to be careful," says Mr. Bauer, who attended a private reception in Romney's home for social conservative leaders last October. "On the one hand, people don't want to be naive and think that it's coincidental that politicians have these about-faces when it's getting close to an election. On the other hand, we want people to reevaluate. He at least has a story about what led him to take a look at this again."

Others who have seen Romney in action with Christian conservative Republicans describe an ability to put them at ease. "They do have difficulty with the Mormon issue, but when he comes into a room and begins to say the right things, there's a feeling of, 'He came late to the party, but what do you expect, he lives in Massachusetts,' " says J. David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C.

In making his announcement Tuesday, Romney eschewed the state he just finished governing and instead spoke in his home state of Michigan, where his father was once governor. But it is Michigan's status as a battleground state in presidential politics that gives the choice extra meaning. If Romney wins the nomination, there's little chance he could win Massachusetts.

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