Mitt Romney – the presumed front-runner in the Republican contest to select a presidential challenger – is a well-known figure in American politics.
He’s been a governor, a businessman, and the guy who rescued the 2002 Winter Olympic Games from mismanagement. That’s the good news for Romney.
But the fact that he’s a well-known figure in American politics is also his major challenge.
He has a record that he must either defend or try to move away from without appearing to flip-flop on such issues as abortion, gay rights, gun control, climate change, and government health care policy – issues on which he’s held relatively moderate positions in the past.
And then there’s his religion, which remains a cause for pause among millions of potential voters, especially the white evangelical Christians prominent among primary and caucus voters.
Romney is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church.
In his first race for the presidency four years ago, he likened himself to John F. Kennedy in 1960 – the first Roman Catholic to be elected president – in his personal separation of church and state.
Romney's 'Kennedy speech' on religion
In what probably was his most important political speech at the time, Romney said, “Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.”
“Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: does he share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty?” he said in a 2007 speech at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas. "They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They are the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united.”
Unfortunately for Romney – and for the cause of religious pluralism and tolerance in the United States – that did not stop the questions about his faith, questions that are being asked again as he heads into the presidential nominating process and toward the 2012 election.
According to a new Pew Research Center poll, 25 percent of all voters say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate if he or she were a Mormon.
More significantly in terms of winning his party’s nod, 34 percent of white evangelical Protestants say they would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate, according to Pew. Such voters made up 44 percent of GOP primary voters in 2008 – a group Romney did not do well with before he dropped out of the race.
Back then, Romney had been the target of rumors about his faith as well as outright criticisms from some evangelical pastors. Could things be different for him in 2012?
GOP candidates court religious conservatives
On Friday night, Romney joined most of the other likely GOP presidential candidates at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s conference, the gathering of religious and social conservatives organized by Ralph Reed.
He referred to "our belief in the sanctity of human life," said marriage should apply to "one man and one woman,” and said the nation’s high unemployment rate amounts to “a moral crisis” that can threaten marriages.
But “he didn’t pander to the heavily evangelical audience, which represents a large slice of the GOP primary electorate,” reports Beth Reinhard of the National Journal. “Instead of trying to gloss over his previous support for abortion rights and pass himself off as a rock-ribbed social conservative – as he did in 2008 – he stuck with the fiscal platform he laid out at his official campaign kickoff the day before in New Hampshire…. He didn’t get knocked off message.”
That message is largely about the economy, less so about social issues.
Unlike 2008, he may downplay the Iowa caucuses, putting more resources into the primary election in New Hampshire (where he officially launched his candidacy this past week).
With Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee out of the race, Michele Bachmann – a proud social and religious conservative with what some see as Palinesque idiosyncrasies – might be expected to do well in Iowa, her native state.
If she wins there, some are speculating, Republicans – including those with concerns about Mitt Romney’s religion – might just turn to the more staid and predictable businessman.