WASHINGTON As he begins campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is facing a threshold issue: Will his religion he is a Mormon be a big obstacle to winning the White House?
Polls show a substantial number of Americans will not vote for a Mormon for president. The religion is viewed with suspicion by Christian conservatives who make up a vital part of the Republicans' primary base.
Romney's advisers acknowledged that popular misconceptions about Mormonism as well as questions about whether Mormons are beholden to their church's leaders on public policy could give his opponents ammunition in the wide-open fight among Republicans to become the consensus candidate of social conservatives.
Romney, in an extended interview on the subject as he drove through South Carolina last week, expressed confidence that he could quell concerns about his faith, pointing to his own experience winning in Massachusetts. He said he shared with many Americans the bafflement over such obsolete Mormon practices as polygamy he described it as "bizarre" and disputed the argument that his faith would require him to be loyal to his church before his country.
"People have interest early on in your religion and any similar element of your background," he said. "But as soon as they begin to watch you on TV and see the debates and hear you talking about issues, they are overwhelmingly concerned with your vision of the future and the leadership skills that you can bring to bear."
Still, Romney is taking no chances. He has set up a meeting later this month in Florida with 100 ministers and religious broadcasters. That gathering follows what was by all accounts a successful meeting at his home last fall with evangelical leaders, including Jerry Falwell; Franklin Graham, who is a son of the Rev. Billy Graham; and Paula White, a popular preacher.
Romney said he is giving strong consideration to a public address about his faith and political views, modeled after the one John F. Kennedy gave in 1960 in the face of a wave of concern about his Catholicism.
Romney's aides said he has closely studied Kennedy's speech in trying to measure how to navigate the task of becoming the nation's first Mormon president, and he has consulted other Mormon elected leaders, including Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, about how to proceed.
Romney appears to be making some headway. Several prominent evangelical leaders said that, after meeting him, they had grown sufficiently comfortable with the notion of Romney as president to overcome any concerns they might have about his religion.
On a pragmatic level, some said that Romney despite questions among conservatives about his shifting views on abortion and gay rights struck them as the Republican candidate best able to win and carry their social conservative agenda to the White House.
"There's this growing acceptance of this idea that Mitt Romney may well be and is our best candidate," said Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal advocacy group, and a prominent host on Christian radio.
Mark DeMoss, an evangelical public relations consultant who represents many conservative Christian organizations, said it was "more important to me that a candidate shares my values than my faith," adding: "And if I look at it this way, Romney would be my top choice."
Mormons consider themselves to be Christians, but some beliefs central to Mormons are regarded by other churches as heretical. For example, Mormons have three books of Scripture other than the Bible, including the Book of Mormon, which Mormons believe was translated from golden plates discovered in 1827 by Joseph Smith Jr., the church's founder and first prophet.
Mormons believe that Smith rescued Christianity from apostasy and restored the church to what was envisioned in the New Testament but these doctrines are beyond the pale for most Christian churches.
Beyond that, there are perceptions among some people regarding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the church is formally known, that account for at least some of the public unease: that Mormons still practice polygamy (the church renounced polygamy in 1890), that it is more of a cult than a religion, and that its members take political direction from the church's leaders.
Several Republicans said such perceptions could be a problem for Romney, especially in the South, which has had a disproportionate influence in selecting Republican presidential nominees.
Gloria A. Haskins, a state representative from South Carolina who is supporting Sen. John McCain for the Republican nomination, said discussions with her constituents in Greenville, an evangelical stronghold, convinced her that a Mormon like Romney could not win a Republican primary in her state. South Carolina has one of the earliest, and most critical, primaries next year.
"From what I hear in my district, it is very doubtful," Haskins said. "This is South Carolina we're very mainstream, evangelical, Christian, conservative. It will come up in this of all states, it will come up."
But Katon Dawson, the Republican chairman in South Carolina, said he thought Romney had made significant progress in dealing with those concerns. "I have heard him on his personal faith and on his character and conviction and the love for his country," Dawson said. "I have all confidence that he will be able to answer those questions, whether they be in negative ads against him or in forums or in debates."
Romney's candidacy has stirred a flurry of discussion about faith and the White House unlike any since Kennedy, including a remarkable debate that unfolded recently in The New Republic. Damon Linker, a critic of the influence of Christian conservatism on politics, described Mormonism as a "theologically unstable, and thus politically perilous, religion."
The article brought a stinging rebuttal in the same publication from Richard Lyman Bushman, a Mormon who is a history professor at Columbia University, and who said Linker's arguments had "no grounding in reality."
Romney is not the first Mormon to seek a presidential nomination, but by every indication he has the best chance yet of being in the general election next year. His father, George Romney, was a candidate in 1968, but his campaign collapsed before he ever had to deal seriously with questions about religion.
Hatch said his own candidacy in 2000, which was something of a long-shot, was to "knock down prejudice against my faith."
"There's a lot of prejudice out there," Hatch said. "We've come a long way, but there are still many people around the country who consider the Mormon faith a cult."
But if Romney has made progress with evangelicals, he appears to face a larger challenge in dispelling apprehensions among the public at large about the church. A national poll by The Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg last June found 37 percent said they would not vote for a Mormon for president.
Romney offered assurances that seemed to reflect what Kennedy told the nation in discussing his Catholicism some 50 years ago. He said the requirements of his faith would never overcome his political obligations. He pointed out that in Massachusetts, he had signed laws allowing stores to sell alcohol on Sundays, even though he is prohibited by his faith from drinking, and to expand the state lottery, though Mormons are forbidden from gambling. He also noted that Mormons are not exclusively Republicans, pointing to Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader.
"There's no church-directed view," he said. "How can you have Harry Reid on one side and Orrin Hatch on the other without recognizing that the church doesn't direct political views. I very clearly subscribe to Abraham Lincoln's view of America's political religion. And that is when you take the oath of office, your responsibility is to the nation, and that is first and foremost."
He said he was not concerned about the resistance in the polls. "If you did a poll and said, 'Could a divorced actor be elected as president, would you vote for a divorced actor as president,' my guess is 70 percent would say no. But then they saw Ronald Reagan, they heard him, they heard his vision they heard his experience, they said I like Ronald Reagan, I'm voting for him."