Romney’s Bid for the White House Looks Decidedly Uphill

by Stuart Rothenberg January 30, 2006 · 9:47 AM EST

The Republicans begin the marathon toward the 2008 presidential election without a prohibitive favorite for their nomination. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani lead in early polling, but their initial strength comes from their celebrity status, not their inherent appeal to primary voters and caucus attendees.

Enter Mitt Romney, the outgoing governor of Massachusetts.

After serving but a single term as governor of the Bay State, Romney passed up a bid for re-election to run for the White House in 2008. No, he hasn’t announced his plans yet, but formal announcements aren’t what they used to be. All signs point to Romney running for the GOP presidential nomination, and that’s much more important than a formal announcement.

Romney — the former president of the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee, which hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics — holds an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.

Generally regarded as good-looking, personable and even charismatic, Romney would seem to fit in the top tier of likely GOP presidential hopefuls. After all, any Republican who can overcome a huge partisan disadvantage to win in Massachusetts must have considerable appeal (even granting that he’s now considerably less popular at home than he once was).

Still, three huge question marks hang over Romney’s White House prospects.

First, can Romney convince conservatives — the single most important constituency within the GOP — that he is conservative enough to meet their test?

Second, can he demonstrate to both Republicans and Democrats that he is sufficiently well versed in foreign policy to sit in the Oval Office at a time of international terrorism and national security threats?

Third, and arguably most important, can he ease or erase evangelicals’ concerns about his Mormon beliefs?

Ideological positioning is a consideration in any political race, and one hot-button issue, abortion, could give Romney considerable trouble in a race for the Republican presidential nomination.

In his 1994 Senate race against Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Romney proclaimed, “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country.” Eight years later, when running for governor of the Bay State, he said that while he did not favor abortion personally, as governor he would “protect the right of a woman to choose under the law of the country and the laws of the Commonwealth.”

More recently, as he’s moved toward a GOP presidential primary bid, Romney has described himself as pro-life.

The Republican Party has not nominated a supporter of abortion rights for the White House since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, and it is not likely to do so in 2008. It’s up to Romney to convince voters either that he has changed his views, or that his earlier statements somehow didn’t reflect his fundamental beliefs.

In foreign policy, Romney’s experience is minimal. At other times, that deficiency might not be terribly damaging. But now, given the international and national security challenges facing the United States, that weakness could be politically fatal.

But it’s Romney’s religious beliefs that may constitute his biggest hurdle in his bid for the GOP nomination.

While religious tolerance is a fundamental American principle, Mormonism remains a controversial religion to at least one crucial electoral constituency in the Republican Party: evangelical Christians.

Amy Sullivan’s article, “Mitt Romney’s Evangelical Problem” in The Washington Monthly and Nina Easton’s article in the Aug. 30, 2005, Boston Globe argue, accurately, that the Massachusetts governor’s religion will hurt him seriously among evangelicals, who regard Mormons as a non-Christian cult.

While members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as LDS) insist that they are merely one of many Christian denominations, most influential evangelicals disagree. They argue that LDS views are fundamentally at odds with Christian theology.

Richard Cizik, the vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, leaves no doubt where his group stands.

“The NAE will say that Mormons are not Christians. They don’t pass the test of orthodoxy,” Cizik says. He goes on to suggest that the “whole issue of the [LDS] church’s theology could become an issue” for Romney when the Massachusetts governor throws his hat into the ’08 race.

Evangelicals’ problems with a Mormon candidate will be no small issue for Romney. Evangelicals accounted for one in five Republican primary voters in New Hampshire in 2000 — a considerable chunk, considering that the state is not known as home to a large evangelical population and that the state allows Independents to participate in partisan primaries.

In 2000, 34 percent of South Carolina Republican primary voters told exit pollsters that they were members of the “religious right,” a demographic group that presumably is considerably smaller than are “evangelicals.” In the Iowa caucuses, 37 percent of GOP attended embraced the religious right label.

Evangelicals aren’t likely to tell pollsters that Romney is unacceptable because of his religion, but his LDS membership is certain to raise questions (and concerns) that will give many Republican caucus attendees and primary voters a reason not to support the governor. That would be a considerable handicap for a politician who begins with other liabilities.