As outside pressure mounts on Mitt Romney to deliver a “Mormon speech” in the style of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address on his Catholicism, the Romney campaign has reached an internal decision to delay such a speech at least until early next year, according to two campaign advisors.
“A lot of people were talking about doing it before Thanksgiving and the holidays, but then we moved up in the polls, including in South Carolina,” a senior Romney advisor tells Beliefnet. “So the thinking became that the timing [for a speech on religion] was not as rushed.”
Romney advisors say an internal debate about whether the former Massachusetts governor needs to deliver a speech on his religion has been playing out inside his campaign for several weeks, mostly between evangelical Christian advisors who are pro-speech and non-Christian conservatives who see less of a need for one.
“It might be that a speech is more appropriate for late in the primaries or for the general election,” said another Romney advisor. “Frankly, this is going to be a question of polling; if we’re doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire, and [Romney’s Mormonism] is not coming up as a divisive issue, maybe we should just stay the course, since winning in those early states is key.”
“I came onto the campaign with great conviction that the speech needed to happen immediately,” said this second advisor. “Now, I’m a little more hesitant.”
Both advisors requested anonymity so that they could speak candidly about internal campaign deliberations.
“There are some mainstream Republican advisors who aren’t as sensitive to the fact that there is hesitation among evangelicals, and that a speech addressing faith and politics would be helpful,” says a senior Romney advisor. “Romney is a great communicator and could address the sensitivities in a way that would be productive for voters.”
But the anti-speech faction has won the debate at least for the time being, arguing that such an address could be given only once, and that the news environment is too cluttered for one speech to break through in a lasting way. But perhaps the strongest argument against the speech is Romney’s success in early primary and caucus state polls.
At the same time, a growing chorus of political pundits and Romney supporters are calling for a “Mormon speech.” Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, a Mormon and a Romney supporter, said this week that “There’s a concern that [Romney’s] religious beliefs might interfere with serving all people…. He needs to put that problem to bed.”
“All he needs to do is address it like JFK did,” Hatch said in an interview with the Associated Press.
But the pro-speech faction inside the Romney campaign believes his task is more complex, since the thrust of Kennedy’s speech was that his Catholicism would not interfere with his actions as president, while the Christian conservatives Romney is trying to appeal to want their president to be influenced by his faith. “Romney would be doing something different,” from JFK, said a campaign advisor. “He would be embracing his faith and saying ‘It’s part of me,’ so it would be a new angle.”
Mark DeMoss, a prominent evangelical public relations specialist who is doing outreach to conservative Christians on Romney’s behalf, said he wasn’t convinced that a “Mormon speech” was necessary. “I don’t think it’s critical that he do it, nor am I advising that he not do it,” DeMoss said. “The reason I think it’s not necessarily imperative that he do it is that he’s talked a lot about his faith. It’s a very visible part of his life and he’s been transparent about it.”
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s recent rise in the Iowa polls, due largely to his success consolidating evangelical support there, would seem to increase pressure on Romney to deliver the speech. But campaign advisors say Romney’s strategy is to resist going after single-minded Christian conservatives who are unlikely to stray from Huckabee. Rather, the Romney campaign will spend the next few weeks hitting Huckabee on other issues, like immigration and taxes, which it believes are near and dear to most Christian conservatives.
Given the choice between an evangelical who is right on some of the issues versus who is right on all the issues, I’d rather go with the Mormon,” said a Romney advisor.
According to an opposition document leaked to Beliefnet from a Romney advisor, the campaign will also attempt to paint Huckabee as being weak on terror, as pardoning too many violent criminals as Arkansas governor, and as a weak candidate due to lack of fundraising.