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In the closing stretch of a campaign in which he has seldom uttered the word “Mormon,” Mitt Romney is opening up about his faith as he strives to present a more textured self-portrait to undecided voters.
And Republican leaders -- some of whom have worried that anti-Mormon views prevalent among evangelical Christians who form a sizable chunk of the party base would damage Romney’s chances of victory -- are working to dispel the stigma.
Former Arkansas Governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, in an address before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida last night, said he cares “far less” about where Romney goes to church than about where he would take the country.
Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, a Catholic, noted that he and Romney go to “different churches” yet share the “same moral creed.”
And when he accepts the Republican presidential nomination tonight, Romney will discuss his years as a Mormon bishop ministering to troubled families, following testimonials about his compassion by congregants and an invocation from a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
“This is an opportunity to say how his faith informs his thinking and his actions,” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said at a Bloomberg/Washington Post breakfast today. Romney’s Mormon faith is “a powerful thing, and he’s never talked about this. It’s interesting. I think it’s something to be proud of, and I think it’s something to share.”
It will be the culmination of the campaign’s decision in recent days to embrace discussion of Romney’s faith -- even allowing the small group of reporters who track his movements to photograph him attending church on Sundays -- after downplaying the theme for much of the presidential race.
Taken together, the moves reflect a conclusion by Romney and his advisers that discussing his years as a church leader -- when he helped congregants through difficult decisions on such issues as abortion, financial woes and terminal illness -- would help them combat his image as aloof and uncaring. It’s a counterpoint to some better-known and less-sympathetic elements of the ex-Massachusetts governor’s biography: his privileged upbringing and $250 million fortune amassed during 25 years as a private equity executive.
“I have seen him spend countless hours helping others,” Romney’s wife, Ann, said in her Aug. 28 convention speech, adding that she’s seen him answer “late-night calls of panic” from “a member of our church.”
“This is important -- I want you to hear what I am going to say,” Ann Romney said. “Mitt does not like to talk about how he has helped others because he sees it as a privilege -- not a political talking point.”
Politics did factor into Romney’s decision to stay quiet about his religion -- as well as his eventual turnabout.
Aides and family members were divided over whether Romney should speak more about his faith, given that some evangelical Christians view it as a cult. They pointed to his loss in the 2008 Republican presidential primary as a lesson that it would inflame that anti-Mormon bias. During that campaign, Romney attempted to educate the public about his faith in an effort to demystify it, even delivering a major 2007 address about his religion.
This time, some strategists argued internally that the political risks -- including obscuring Romney’s focus on the economy and jobs -- were simply too high.
The approach persisted throughout Romney’s drawn-out Republican primary battle, even after he clinched the nomination in April by defeating former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a Catholic who emphasized his religious conservative values and talked often about his faith. This month, with the party nod all but sealed, came Romney’s decision to allow a small contingent of news media to witness all of his outings, including photographing his entrances and exits from church.
Strategists say while it may have complicated his primary race, Romney’s faith will only have a marginal effect on his general-election campaign against President Barack Obama.
“There is a small, hard core of people who just aren’t going to vote for a Mormon,” said Richard Land, estimating the group at between 10 percent and 15 percent of voters. “But I think that for most evangelicals, whatever lingering discomfort level they have with Romney’s Mormonism is trumped by their increasing concerns about what a second term of Barack Obama would look like.”
Romney’s decision to address his faith more publicly isn’t for those voters, Land added: “I think this is for the independents and women” who wonder whether Romney is compassionate enough to be president.
Still, Republicans are using the convention this week to increase religious conservatives’ comfort level with Romney’s faith.
“Let me say to you tonight I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church than I do about where he takes this country,” Huckabee said last night.
Ryan, who earns perfect ratings from anti-abortion rights groups, noted that while they attend different churches, Romney preaches by example. The soon-to-be-official nominee “is prayerful and faithful and honorable. Not only a defender of marriage, he offers an example of marriage at its best. Not only a fine businessman, he’s a fine man,” Ryan said.
And the Wisconsin congressman said his running mate shares his belief “that in every life there is goodness.” Romney, who ran in Massachusetts as a supporter of abortion rights, now describes himself as solidly “pro-life.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Tampa, Florida at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com