Presidential contender Mitt Romney on Thursday campaigned for the 2008 GOP nomination as a man of faith, directly mentioning his Mormon background only once in a speech originally billed as an effort to allay any concerns about his religion.
Buoyed by an introduction by former President George H.W. Bush, Romney mentioned "faith" 22 times, "religion" 25 times but his own Mormon background only once during the 25-minute address to an enthusiastic, invited audience at Bush's presidential library in College Station, Texas.
The event had all the visual trappings of a high-powered political endorsement. The podium, bedecked with a replica of a presidential seal, was flanked by 10 American flags and it was easy to envision future TV commercials based on the occasion.
Bush, who emphasized that he has not endorsed any candidate for president, fondly recalled Romney's father, late Michigan Gov. George Romney, who had inspired volunteerism and had been a mentor to Bush, then a Republican congressman from Texas.
Bush then introduced Romney to the audience, saying: "Please welcome this good man."
Romney announced plans for the speech last Sunday after a new Iowa Poll showed him slipping behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, barely a month before the state's influential kickoff Jan. 3 precinct caucuses.
If he were elected, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and multimillionaire corporate turnaround whiz, would be the first member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to serve as president since the religion's founder, Joseph Smith Jr., said he had a vision of God outside his home in Palmyra, N.Y., in 1820.
Some evangelical Christians deem the denomination as little more than a cult. Polls show that evangelical Christians make up more than one-third of Republican primary voters nationwide.
Romney made only a single direct reference to theological differences between Mormons and some Christians, noting that the two denominations differ on the role of Jesus Christ. Romney emphasized, however, that he believed that Jesus Christ was "the son of God and the savior of mankind."
Romney did not return to the specifics of his Mormon faith, devoting the remainder of his remarks to the faith-based "moral heritage" that he would bring to his presidency, his commitment to separation of church and state, religious tolerance and his promise to defend the "acknowledgement of God" in public places.
No religious leader "will ever exert influence on presidential decisions" in a Romney administration, Romney declared.
"I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest," he said. "A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States."
Romney conceded that "there are some for whom these commitments are not enough." But he insisted that he would not "disavow" his faith for "convenience."
Romney continued: "I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. ... Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they're right, so be it."
Huckabee told NBC News' "Today" program before Romney's remarks that Romney's ability to be a good president had "nothing to do with what faith a person has it's whether or not that person's life is consistent."