After the Trump tease, the Daniels dalliance, the Huckabee hesitation, the Palin pretense, and the Christie charade, the press corps has reluctantly turned its lonely eyes back to the once and future frontrunner, Mitt Romney.
But having already exhausted the usual storylines—he’s stiff, he’s changed positions, he’s inauthentic—journalists have returned to the one that generated so many sparks in the last campaign: he’s a Mormon!
This is not quite breaking news, of course, but it does inject a note of dramatic divisiveness into an otherwise tepid candidacy.
Admittedly, news organizations had a legitimate reason to pounce on the question of Romney’s faith over the weekend. At the Values Voter forum, Robert Jeffress, a Baptist leader from Dallas who introduced Rick Perry as a “committed follower of Christ” ripped into Romney’s religion. It is a “cult,” he told reporters, and “Mormonism is not Christianity.” (Perry has largely avoided making any comment.)
Romney sidestepped the attack the following day, calling for tolerance and saying there is no place for “poisonous language” in politics. He did not use the M word.
Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, brushed off the incident. “It doesn’t really change anything,” he told me Monday. “He’s going to talk about jobs, the economy, foreign policy. There’s not a grand strategy here except to talk about stuff we want to talk about.”
Romney is said by those close to him to have laughed off the Jeffress slam as nothing new, and Stevens insists he isn’t worried about the coverage. “It’s only a distraction if you get distracted,” he says.
Still, the floodgates have opened. Politico’s lead story on Sunday was headlined “Mitt Romney’s Mormon Issue Returns.” Other candidates were asked about the Jeffress rhetoric on the talk shows, and as the new week began it was the hot topic on television and online.
Romney, for his part, stopped turning the other cheek Tuesday, telling reporters in New Hampshire that he “would call on Governor Perry to repudiate” the remarks by Jeffress.
Will the press keep pounding away at this anti-Mormon outburst? Why, 50 years after JFK broke the Catholic barrier, is a candidate’s religion again emerging as a major issue?
Journalists have a fig leaf in tackling the topic. Evangelical Christians made up 44 percent of the Republican primary electorate in 2008, according to an ABC News analysis, and many have an antipathy toward Mormons, which is why Romney fared poorly among these voters last time. Thus news outlets can say, with some validity, that they’re merely engaging in horse-race analyses rather than singling out a Mormon candidate for special scrutiny.
We have been down this road before. The clamor over Romney’s religion was such that the candidate felt compelled to deliver a major address in December 2007. “He gave his speech on this four years ago,” Stevens says in a that’s-old-news tone.
At George H.W. Bush’s presidential library, Romney said: “Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin…No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith.”
That speech prompted a wave of reporting on everything from Romney’s days as a Mormon missionary to examinations of what Mormons, who comprise about 2 percent of the U.S. population, believe (the church gave up polygamy more than 100 years ago).
A New York Times editorial said Romney was "trying to persuade Christian fundamentalists … that he is sufficiently Christian for them to support his bid for the Republican nomination. No matter how dignified he looked, and how many times he quoted the founding fathers, he could not disguise that sad fact.”
Mike Huckabee, the former Baptist minister, caused a stir by asking: “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” He later apologized for a mistake he said was rooted in ignorance. Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses, where evangelicals play a particularly strong role, and Romney has since developed an allergy to Iowa, blowing off the summer’s straw poll.
This time around, Romney’s rivals haven’t exactly rushed to the defense of Mormonism. Asked on Fox News Sunday whether Romney could be deemed a “true Christian,” Rick Santorum said: “He says he’s a Christian.” Michele Bachmann, asked on CNN’s State of the Union whether Romney is a Christian, ducked twice by talking about her own “sincerely held faith” and the need for “religious tolerance.” Herman Cain, asked the same question on the same program, said: “I’m not running for theologian in chief. I’m a lifelong Christian.”
(The other Mormon candidate in the race, Jon Huntsman, told voters in New Hampshire: “I have no idea why people are wasting so much political-capital bandwidth on this issue. It’s nonsense.”)
Romney has significant weaknesses as a candidate, starting with his evolution from a Massachusetts moderate who once backed abortion rights through his awkwardness at chatting with regular folks at a diner. But he has focused like a laser beam on the economy, a sensible strategy for a former venture capitalist running against a president who is presiding over a 9.1 percent jobless rate.
Why, then, are the media again being diverted by his faith? It is true that Romney would be the first Mormon president, but that hardly seems a farfetched notion in a country that has elected its first African-American president.
The answer is that Romney’s disciplined style doesn’t lend itself to the Trump-style entertainment that many in the media seem to prefer in 2011. A religious controversy, by contrast, touches enough hot buttons to heat up the debate. The question is how long the media can stoke this issue if Romney, the stubbornly steady campaigner with every hair in place, refuses to engage.