Romney recalls JFK as prospect of Mormon President spooks Iowans

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The Independent US

Hoping to boost his faltering campaign and ease qualms about his Mormon faith, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney intends to wrap himself in the mantle of John F Kennedy tomorrow when he delivers a speech on faith and politics.

Forty-seven years ago, JFK chose Texas to deliver a speech that saved his attempt to become the country's first Catholic President, promising wary Americans that he would not take directions from the Pope.

Mr Romney, who has spent more lavishly than any other candidate, has found his support is faltering nationally and, more crucially, in Iowa where the presidential primary season opens with the first caucuses on 3 January.

Fundamentalist Christians make up about a third of Republican caucus-goers in Iowa. Mr Romney decided to grasp the nettle and make a high-profile, if risky, speech about his faith after concluding the issue could sink his campaign over the next three weeks. Some of Mr Romney's aides have described the speech as a wild and unpredictable gamble.

He fears that, in the crucial weeks ahead, unflattering attention will be drawn to his Mormonism in socially conservative Iowa. Earlier this year, a Washington Post poll found that his faith was seen by voters as a bigger negative than Barack Obama's colour or Hillary Clinton's gender.

After dismissing the threat for months while leading in Iowa, Mr Romney's campaign suffered a sudden and unexpected derailment at the hands of a "second-tier" candidate, the former governor of Arkansas and televangelist Mike Huckabee. With hardly any staff in Iowa and no budget to push his views on television, Mr Huckebee surged ahead a week ago.

On radio shows and in relaxed television interviews, the charmingly dimpled Mr Huckabee appealed to Iowa voters with his homespun verities and unvarnished socially conservative views. An informal network of evangelical ministers has also used the pulpit to push his campaign along.

Mr Romney's stumble in Iowa is all the more important because the corn-belt state, the first in the nation to vote, is more pivotal than ever with the campaign so volatile and the field so crowded. Victory here, especially for one who has come from behind, could create the momentum needed to win as primaries follow in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Florida.

Mr Romney, until recently the Governor of Massachusetts, has been out on the campaign trail in Iowa holding "town hall meetings" and spending tens of millions of dollars on advertising and staffing. So far, he has not persuaded Republican voters to back his record of managerial competence.

And, after saying for months that he saw no reason to make an issue out of his religion, he is travelling to Texas to deliver a speech entitled Faith in America, at the George [HW] Bush presidential library.

Mr Romney's spokesman, Kevin Madden, said "This speech is an opportunity for Governor Romney to share his views on religious liberty; the grand tradition that religious tolerance has played in the progress of our nation and how the governor's own faith would inform his presidency, if he were elected." Mr Romney "understands that faith is an important issue to many Americans, and he personally feels this moment is the right moment for him to share his views with the nation."

In the CNN/YouTube Republican debate in Florida last week, Mr Romney was criticised for hesitating before he answered a question on whether he believes every word of the Bible. Mormons believe the Bible has errors, a position that makes Mr Romney an apostate in the eyes of many fundamentalist Christians. His speech in Texas is seen as an effort to block Mr Huckabee's progress and stifle the debate on Mormonism.

Amid a whispering campaign against his Catholicism, JFK went to Houston in 1960 to allay fears about his duty as a Catholic to obey the Pope. He said: "If my church attempted to influence me in a way which was improper or which affected adversely my responsibilities as a public servant, sworn to uphold the Constitution, then I would reply to them that... it would be an unfortunate breach, an interference with the American political system." The address marked a turning point that made the election of a Catholic finally possible. Mr Romney is hoping he can do the same as a Mormon.