Much Riding on Romney's Speech Today on His Religion; to Sway More Voters, He Needs to Focus on His Morals, Experts Say

Article excerpt

Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will deliver a speech today designed to convince Dale Pope of Jacksonville- and millions of other evangelical Christians - that it's OK to have a Mormon in the White House.

Pope said he'll be listening.

"I want to see his consistency in values and I want to see what his core beliefs are," said Pope, a firefighter who worships at North Jacksonville Baptist Church.

Those beliefs are expected to be Romney's focus today. He has avoided the discussion throughout his campaign, but Republican candidate Mike Huckabee is gaining favor among white evangelicals in Iowa and surging in some polls, The Associated Press reported.

Pope said he's a Huckabee supporter because the Southern Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor's theology and values most closely reflect his own as a born-again Christian.

"But if you're asking me would I ever discount Romney because he has different theological beliefs than I do, the answer is no," Pope said. "Because at least he has a belief in God and at least he's not saying it's OK for two men to be married or that abortion is OK."

Wooing conservative Christians back from the Huckabee camp and swaying fence-sitters is Romney's goal, a number of political scientists told the Times-Union.

His success will depend in part on how clearly - and carefully - he articulates the pro-life, pro-family and other social values he shares with conservative religious voters, said Quinn Monson, a political scientist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Romney has said he will avoid delving into Mormon tenets today. But he must use the speech to counter false depictions of Mormons as polygamists and racists - charges that result from practices and doctrines the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned long ago, Monson said.

Monson's tip for Romney: "Don't gloss over or dwell on the theological differences, but show that they will lead us to the same ends politically."

It would be disastrous if Romney tries to distance himself from his church or to suggest he would leave his beliefs at the Oval Office door, said Ted Olsen, managing editor for news and online journalism at Christianity Today, an evangelical Christian magazine.

That's the biggest difference between Romney's speech today at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, and the 1960 campaign speech in which John F. Kennedy spoke about his Catholic faith. Kennedy emphasized that his faith did not inform his politics, a tactic that would doom Romney's chances with evangelicals, Olsen said.

"That runs so counter to what evangelicals stand for" and "smacks of liberalism," Olsen said.

Romney has already picked up some key endorsements from conservative Christian leaders, including Bob Jones III, chairman of Bob Jones University, and evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem, Olsen said. And some polls suggest Romney's task isn't all uphill.

A Pew Forum in August said 53 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Mormons, and that 66 percent said a candidate's Mormon faith would make no difference in their willingness to vote for him or her.

But the poll also showed that Republican evangelicals are the most reluctant to vote for a Mormon. It found that 36 percent of white evangelicals were less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate, and 41 percent of those who attend church weekly were less likely to do so.

Romney must contend with reminders of Mormonism's polygamist past and the belief of many that Mormon teachings are heretical, if not un-Christian. Brett Pielstick, a Mormon who lives in St. Augustine, said it's frustrating to hear that.

"I hope he addresses the issue of us being Christians," said Pielstick, second counselor in the church's Jacksonville East Stake presidency. …