Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's decision to give a speech this week confronting questions about his Mormon faith is being seen as a gamble that may not be a win with either supporters or opponents.
The so-called "JFK speech" is set to be delivered by Romney on Thursday, less than a month before Iowa Republicans and Democrats will cast the first votes in the 2008 presidential race in party caucuses.
The site of the speech is the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, and although the Romney campaign has said the choice of location shouldn't be seen as an endorsement, former President George H.W. Bush himself will introduce Romney.
Neither Bush nor his son, President Bush, have endorsed a candidate in the wide-open race for the GOP nomination. The introduction by a past president will no doubt be a boost to Romney's campaign, which is beginning to falter in Iowa.
The speech, though, could either help or hurt Romney, the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and the clear choice for president among Utah voters according to recent polls.
Just what Romney will say is being kept under wraps by his campaign. It is expected to be modeled after one delivered by then-candidate John F. Kennedy to Baptist leaders in Houston in 1960 to ease concerns about a Catholic president.
Romney made an effort Monday to downplay that comparison, however, telling supporters in New Hampshire that "JFK really did give the definitive speech on politics and religion" and his would not be "a repeat or an update."
Instead, according to the Boston Globe, Romney said he wants to focus on his concern that "faith has disappeared in many respects from the public square. I want to make sure we maintain our religious heritage in this country."
Romney said the speech, which his campaign said he wrote himself in Boca Raton, Fla., a day after last week's Republican CNN-YouTube debate, would "answer some questions relating to how my own faith would inform my presidency," ABC News reported.
The stakes are high. After holding the lead in must-win Iowa for months, Romney now trails former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister popular with the same evangelical Christian voters suspicious of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Political pundits are already second-guessing Romney's decision to talk about "Faith in America," noting even the candidate's closest advisers have long been divided over whether the speech will just end up raising more questions about Mormonism.
The speech is seen as "a wildly unpredictable gamble ... potentially at war with the campaign's longtime precept that it is not a winning strategy for Romney to be identified primarily as the Mormon candidate in a Republican race dominated by Christian voters," the online publication, Politico, said Monday.
"It's probably the epitome of a high-stakes moment in a campaign," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a Romney supporter. "He has the unenviable position of trying to strike the right balance."
And that may not entirely please anyone, especially those who are looking for Romney to right the wrong information about the church that's surfaced during the campaign, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton's suggestion last spring that Romney and Mormons don't believe in God.
"I'm sure there will be some that see this as a 'golden moment' for the church," Jowers said. "Romney needs to stay focused on his purpose for the speech, and that is very different than what some members of the LDS Church want out of it."
The LDS Church had little to say about the speech. "We don't feel it appropriate to make any comment before Gov. Romney gives his speech on Thursday but will be watching with interest," church spokesman Scott Trotter said.
Jowers suggested there will be little discussion about Mormon belViefs. "I tend to doubt he will spend much if any time on any of the specific theological tenants or doctrines, including the misunderstood ones such as polygamy," he said.
That's just fine with the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance, based in Washington, D.C. Gaddy told the Deseret Morning News Monday the focus of the speech needs to be on the separation of church and state.
"If, as a true Mormon, he wants to talk about misperceptions or misunderstandings of his faith, he ought to do that as Mitt Romney the Mormon, not as Mitt Romney the candidate," Gaddy said.
Unlike others, Gaddy said Romney has nothing to lose by giving the speech.
"He has frankly tried to have it both ways up to now. When people have criticized him for being Mormon, he has asked that he not be judged on the basis of religion," Gaddy said, while at the same time courting the religious right by emphasizing their shared beliefs.
Earlier this year, Gaddy, a Baptist minister and the host of a program on the liberal "Air America" radio network, urged Romney to give a speech making it clear he would "function as the president of the United States and not as a Mormon" if elected.
Romney's campaign has portrayed his decision to give the speech despite the split among his advisers as demonstrating he's in control. But even his supporters acknowledge he may have waited too long.
"In retrospect, the ideal time would have been a few months ago. This is the last possible moment to do it," Jowers said. Why now, then? "I think he just doesn't want any regrets at the end of this campaign."
Romney, though, had little choice with Huckabee's surge in the polls thanks, in part, to identifying himself as the evangelical Christian candidate. "He has to deal with this head-on," said Christian Grose, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
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