Mitt Romney

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.

"He's going to have to make the kind of speech that John Kennedy did to explain where he's coming from," Smith said of Romney. "It would have to tell about his faith, but he would also have to demonstrate a separation from the leaders of his faith."

Romney's religion isn't all that's attracting attention. It's a sure sign that Romney's presidential aspirations are being taken seriously when pundits start talking about the stands he's taken over the years on such controversial issues as gay rights and abortion.

But while that's the latest focus in coverage of a Romney run for the White House, the dominant issue continues to be his faith. His ability to appeal to evangelical Christians is continually being questioned.

Poll after poll suggest a sizable number of voters wouldn't vote for an LDS presidential candidate. For example, a Rasmussen Reports survey in November found that 43 percent of American voters say they would never even consider voting for an LDS candidate.

"Evangelicals regard Mormonism as some kind of a cult," said Ted Jelen, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has written extensively about the role of religion in American politics.

Jelen said the biggest threat to a Romney campaign could come from anti-LDS advertising by outside groups, similar to the "Swift Boat" television commercials in 2004 that questioned Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry's war record.

"That ad is coming. There's just no way around it. It's just too good a piece of ammunition for his opponents to ignore," Jelen said, suggesting such an attack ad might focus on polygamy.

"I think there's a lot of mystery about Mormonism. A lot of people don't know much about it, but they know they don't like it and that there's something vaguely sinister about it," he said. "The Mormonism is a going to be a problem. I don't know how big."

He wouldn't be the first high-profile LDS presidential candidate. Joseph Smith, the church founder, ran and Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, had a brief bid for the GOP nomination as did Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

But if the coverage and reaction to his potential candidacy is any indication, Mitt Romney's run would certainly receive more widespread attention than the past bids by LDS Church members.

Already, Romney is touted as one of the top contenders for the Republican nomination in 2008. Political handicappers typically rank him behind only Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Both McCain and Giuliani have already formed presidential exploratory committees, and McCain counts among his supporters two of Utah's top politicos, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

Romney, though, has yet to take that step, although money is being raised for his political action committees. His Commonwealth PACs are being used to court conservative support by funding local candidates in key primary states such as South Carolina.

The spokesman for the Commonwealth PAC, Jared Young, said he doesn't believe religion will be an issue if Romney runs. "The American people vote for a commander in chief," Young said, "not a pastor in chief."

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