A Reassuring Romney

His long-awaited religion speech impresses even the critics.

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Romney delivers his "Faith in America" address in Texas.

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Mitt Romney has finally given the faith speech he had long wanted to avoid—a talk that many had thought could be disastrous to his quest for the White House.

But Romney, a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, impressed even some of his detractors with a message last week that avoided details about his Mormon faith but eloquently laid out his views on religion and liberty. "I think this speech will reassure conservative evangelicals and Catholics," says Michael Cromartie, director of the evangelicals in civic life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

The message was possibly a turning point in Romney's candidacy, potentially securing his standing with many conservative Christians who had reservations about the distinctive doctrines of Mormonism. Romney mentioned the word Mormon only once but was unequivocal about the religion of his forefathers. "I will be true to them," he said, "and to my beliefs."

The speech invoked John F. Kennedy's 1960 pledge to keep his Roman Catholic faith separate from his political actions. But Romney went further, says Columbia University historian Richard Bushman, a practicing Mormon: "He showed how liberty was grounded in religion and how liberty, in turn, has been responsible for the flowering of religion, allowing people of different beliefs to live in the same public space."

Celebration. Politically, Romney's speech was a masterstroke, says GOP strategist Tony Fabrizio. "I think we were all hoodwinked into thinking this was going to be Romney's defense of Mormonism when, in fact, this was a celebration of his Mormon values—and all communicated free of charge."

Romney, now trailing evangelical conservative Mike Huckabee in Iowa, where the first nominating contest will be held next month, needed the boost. He has staked his success on winning the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary five days later. Losses there could very well signal an end to his campaign.

"The speech was a risky move, but I would be very surprised if we didn't see Romney gaining in the polls. He presented himself as someone you can have faith in," said Vanderbilt Prof. John Geer, coauthor of a recent survey that showed a strong bias against Mormons among evangelical conservatives.

If anything, the speech may have alarmed secularists and nonbelievers. "You need to reassure them," Cromartie says, "that you can be free to believe or not to believe." But as to winning over his target audience in Iowa and beyond, Romney couldn't have done much better. "We witnessed the fusion of something we haven't seen before," Fabrizio says, "the born-again, evangelical Mormon."