Can Romney ease doubts?

Published: Sunday, Dec. 31 2006 12:10 a.m. MST

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is expected to declare his presidential intentions soon after his gubernatorial term ends Jan. 4 — this coming Thursday — and those plans include an expected major speech on his beliefs as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

After a weeklong Christmas gathering in Utah's Deer Valley with his family for "fireside chats" about a potential 2008 president campaign, Romney heads back to Boston today.

"There's sort of two piles of considerations," Romney told KSL Newsradio from Deer Valley. "One is the personal considerations, and the other is the national considerations. And frankly it's the national considerations and the needs of our nation and the people of our nation and what I might be able to do to help that has the biggest influence."

He and his staff have indicated no timetable for a speech on his Mormon faith and the misperceptions surrounding it. Still, there's a growing call from liberal and conservative political observers for him to confront the issues surrounding his Mormonism.

A major speech on the topic of faith from Romney is already being compared to John F. Kennedy's famous campaign speech answering critics who claimed the Catholic Church would control his presidency.

More than three decades ago, Kennedy stood before Southern Baptist leaders and declared he did "not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me," and pledged to govern "without regard to outside pressure or dictate."

The 1960 speech, made in Houston less than two months before the presidential election, is widely seen as key to settling the question of whether a Catholic president would, in effect, take orders from the pope and other church leadership.

Romney campaign insiders won't say much about such a speech. "That's a possibility," one said. "Whether or not that actually will happen remains to be seen. That could be a long way down the road, and a lot could change between now and then."

The campaign hopes that Americans will tire of the talk about Romney's Mormonism, especially as the discussion veers into such topics as the religious clothing worn by members of the LDS Church.

Still, the insider said, Romney may not be able to avoid directly dealing with his personal beliefs on the campaign trail. "It may well need to be done," the insider said of giving a major speech.

Already, news articles about Romney's aspirations have included everything from photographs of religious garments, seen as intrusive by Mormons, to the suggestion that rejecting an LDS presidential candidate does not constitute religious bigotry.

In a recent article in the online magazine Slate, Jacob Weisberg says just that about Romney's religion. "I wouldn't vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism," Weisberg writes, calling church founder Joseph Smith "an obvious con man."

And even the much more conservative Time magazine in November questioned, "Can a Mormon be president?" and attempted to answer, "Why Mitt Romney will have to explain a faith that remains mysterious to many."

"People are unfamiliar with it," said Craig R. Smith, a communications studies professor at California State University, Long Beach. Smith, who was a speechwriter for former Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, said much of what people think they know about LDS Church members is wrong.

"It gets defined in film, in fiction and in other places in ways that are not entirely accurate. That needs to be cleared up," he said. For example, he said, polygamy is still associated with the LDS Church even though the practice was banned more than a century ago.

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