In seeking a presidential candidate for 2008, why would Republicans look further than the governor of Massachusetts?
Tall and urbane, Mitt Romney has a prime political pedigree, an unblemished personal life and the cool confidence of a CEO. He is a conservative Republican who won easy election in a fiercely liberal state -- then streamlined Massachusetts’ government and enacted the country’s most sweeping healthcare overhaul.
He is a passionate defender of states’ rights and recently has embraced strong views against stem cell research and abortion -- a reversal of earlier positions. He never swears, and his sole vice is Diet Coke. Not incidentally, the 59-year-old governor boasts Ivy League credentials and movie-star looks.
But Romney faces a potential obstacle that has not confronted a presidential hopeful for almost 50 years. As a devout Mormon -- and a onetime bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- Romney adheres to a faith that makes many Americans uncomfortable.
Not since John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, sought the White House in 1960 has the religion of a potential president been an issue. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that most religious barriers to high office had crumbled, but that 35% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon president.
“He starts out with a deck stacked against him,” Emory University political science professor Merle Black said of Romney. “Obviously he overcame this in Massachusetts. But he is going to be dealing with a different voting group on the national level.”
Since he announced in December that he would not seek a second term as governor, Romney has campaigned in key primary states -- steadfastly decreeing that his faith was a private matter. He deflects most inquiries by stating that Jesus Christ is his savior. A favorite Romney quip is that in his church, “marriage is between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman.”
This laugh line, and his reluctance to delve deeper into his beliefs, only add to the mystery of a faith that many Americans associate with polygamy -- although that practice has long been outlawed by the church -- and with customs such as marrying people after they have died and converting the dead.
“Evangelicals are appalled by all that,” said Pastor Ted Haggard, president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals in Colorado Springs, Colo. “We evangelicals view Mormons as a Christian cult group. A cult group is a group that claims exclusive revelation. And typically, it’s hard to get out of these cult groups. And so Mormonism qualifies as that.”
In addition, Haggard said, evangelicals do not accept Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith as a prophet. “And we do not believe that the Book of Mormon has the same level of authority as the Bible,” he said.
When Romney says that he accepts Jesus Christ as his savior, “we appreciate that,” Haggard said. “But very often when people like Mormons use terms that we also use, there are different meanings in the theology behind those terms.”
Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said, “Up until about 30 years ago, Mormons were very emphatic that they weren’t Christians.”
But evangelicals might overlook the theological divisions if Romney were the only social conservative on the ballot, Land said.
“If given a choice between a Mormon social conservative and a Catholic social conservative or an Episcopal social conservative or a Presbyterian social conservative, they are going to pick the Catholic or the Episcopal or the Presbyterian,” Land said. “But if given a choice between [former New York Mayor Rudolph W.] Giuliani and Romney, I think a lot of evangelicals would vote for Romney. We are not electing a theologian-in-chief. We are electing a commander-in-chief.”
But as he campaigns in South Carolina, “the biggest weakness for Romney is that he is a Mormon,” said Spartanburg County Republican Party Chairman Rick Beltram.
“He’s got to convince the rank and file that Mormonism isn’t some strange cult religion, and persuade people that the beliefs he holds are very much mainstream USA.”
Starting with Romney’s first exploratory trip to Spartanburg, S.C., in February 2005, Beltram said, “Everyone said, ‘Oh boy, what does a Mormon believe in?’ ”
But political science professor Neal Thigpen of Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., said another hurdle for Romney among conservative Republicans is his adopted home state.
“The thing I have heard against him is, ‘He seems like a good man, but gosh, Massachusetts?’ ” Thigpen said.
After a breakfast here for Iowa Republicans, Romney admitted in an interview that he would have been “a lot smarter to stay in Michigan” if he had foreseen his plunge into GOP politics.
His late father, George Romney, was head of American Motors Corp. in Detroit and a three-term Republican governor of Michigan. The senior Romney’s presidential aspirations cratered in 1967 when he said he was “brainwashed” about the Vietnam War by the military on a tour of the country.
Mitt Romney’s late mother, Lenore, ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate from Michigan in 1970.
George and Lenore Romney named the youngest of their four children Willard, after the family’s close friend and fellow Mormon, hotelier J. Willard Marriott. Romney began using his middle name, Mitt, in elementary school.
Romney said his management and leadership philosophy evolved from observing his father, a popular executive who sought input from all levels in his company. “My own approach is to study a problem thoroughly, bring in different viewpoints, argue, debate and take whatever time it takes -- and then build support,” Romney said.
At 19, Romney left Stanford University after his freshman year for a Mormon mission in France. Romney was first dispatched to Le Havre, which he described as “a Communist town” where people wanted to talk about getting the U.S. out of Vietnam -- not about Romney’s religion. In Paris, he and three fellow missionaries lived in a dingy room “with a hole in the floor at the end of the hall that passed as a toilet,” he said.
Even with weekly showers at a public bathhouse, “it was a very good thing for a guy who had been born to wealth and American privilege to be living in those conditions with 100 bucks a month to spend for everything,” Romney said.
Back in the U.S., Romney enrolled at Brigham Young University, where his girlfriend, Ann Davies, was a student. They married in 1969 and left for Harvard, where Romney earned graduate degrees in law and business.
The Romneys settled in Belmont, a comfortable Boston suburb, and raised five sons. At least one of these tall young men often joins Romney on campaign swings; so does his wife. Friends say the two remain inseparable.
“You really can’t consider Mitt without also considering Ann,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson.
Anderson, a Democrat, worked with Romney when he was called in to salvage the scandal-ridden 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. “There were times when he had to overcome some pretty unreasonable resistance by Olympics obstructionists,” Anderson said. “When he had to be tough, he was capable of taking care of things.”
Romney’s sense of focus helped him amass a fortune as founder and chief executive of Boston-based Bain Capital. Co-workers and clients speak of Romney with intense loyalty.
“This guy pushed you extremely hard, but what made it effective was that he did it in a nice way,” said Tom Stemberg, founder of the Staples office supply chain. “He stays calm. He’s best when things get worst.”
Romney’s political debut was rash. In 1994, he took on U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Democratic leviathan of Massachusetts. He failed, but with 41% of the vote, fared better than expected.
Romney said he stumbled when he allowed his opponent to define him. “I got taught a lesson by Sen. Kennedy,” he said. “It wasn’t cheap, but it was valuable.”
After his Olympic triumph in 2002, Romney made his next political move. Targeting the Massachusetts, he shoved aside the acting governor and GOP incumbent, Jane Swift. Political and personal controversies during her brief tenure had made Swift vulnerable; Romney came on so strong that she backed out rather than risk a primary. Romney beat the Democratic candidate, then-State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien.
Romney takes no salary as governor, and says the one perk he truly relishes is having a driver, so he can read in transit.
To beef up his credentials, Romney has visited Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq. Bouncing across America, Romney has met with thousands of grass-roots Republicans, building a network to carry his name beyond Massachusetts.
But as a one-term governor, Romney faces impediments in his own party, said University of Massachusetts political analyst Lou DiNatale. “He’s still a rookie in Republican primary politics, which is very hierarchical,” DiNatale said. “He’s not yet Republican royalty, and it’s not clear he’s in the line of succession.”
Yet longtime GOP political consultant Ken Khachigian of San Clemente said Romney’s ability to win in the bright blue state of Massachusetts gives him “cachet with Republicans who are looking for someone who can win in liberal areas.”
Khachigian, who worked with Sen. John McCain of Arizona in 2000 but has not committed to a presidential candidate for 2008, said Romney has made strong initial impressions.
“If you look at the three or four top Republicans, certainly Romney is up there, and he will be taken seriously,” Khachigian said.
Still, he cautioned: “The Mormon thing will be an issue.”