Romney sets sights on becoming the first Mormon president of America

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The Independent US

The already cluttered field of US presidential candidates has been further boosted by the official announcement by the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney that he will make a run for the White House.

While the Democratic senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are seeking to become, respectively, the first black and first woman president, Mr Romney, a Republican, wants to become the first Mormon to hold the office. Making his announcement yesterday in Michigan, the state where he was born, he pitched himself as an outsider - hoping to transform his political inexperience into an advantage.

"I do not believe Washington can be transformed from within by a lifelong politician," he said. "There have been too many deals, too many favours, too many entanglements and too little real-world experience managing, guiding, leading." He added: "We have lost faith in government, not in just one party, not in just one house, but in government.

"It is time for innovation and transformation in Washington. It is what our country needs. It is what our people deserve."

Recent polls suggest Mr Romney currently trails a distant fourth in the Republican field, behind the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain and the former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

But given the primary elections to select a candidate are still almost a year away, Mr Romney must be hoping that his numbers will grow as he builds name recognition. He will take heart from a new poll, published yesterday by USA Today, which suggested that 72 per cent of voters said they would vote for a Mormon if he was a suitable candidate. In the same poll, 94 per cent said they would elect a black candidate and 88 per cent would vote for a woman.

John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Research Centre in Washington, said Mr Romney's religious beliefs could work in several ways. He said that while a broad majority of Americans liked their political candidates to talk about religion, polling data on whether voters would elect a Mormon was mixed. When polls asked the question in context of other candidates, there was more support. Mr Green added: "I think the evidence shows it will be a challenge for the Romney campaign to find some way of dealing [with his Mormonism] but not a debilitating challenge."

Despite the constitutional separation of church and state, religion and faith remains a key issue in US politics, particularly in presidential elections. Almost 50 years ago, Senator John F Kennedy felt obliged to talk about his Catholicism to ease fears among some quarters that he would be influenced as leader by the Vatican. Speaking in Houston in 1960, he said: "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish - where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source."

In 2000, the Democratic senator Joe Lieberman sought to explain more about Judaism when he sought to become the country's first Jewish vice-president.

But Mr Romney almost certainly faces a tougher challenge in explaining his religion and beliefs to the public, even though there are an estimated six million Mormons in the US, among them the Senate leader Harry Reid and the Republican senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. Mr Romney's father, also a Mormon, ran for the presidency as a Republican in 1968. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Mr Romney said: "People have interest early on in your religion and any similar element of your background. But as soon as they begin to watch you on TV and see the debates and hear you talking about issues, they are overwhelmingly concerned with your vision of the future and the leadership skills that you can bring to bear."

As a candidate Mr Romney certainly has many strengths. While he only has four years' experience in politics, he impressed many when he took charge of the 2002 Winter Olympics, held in Salt Lake City, which is 70 per cent Mormon. Until he took over the Games, their organisation and planning had been beset by scandal.

Also of great importance in a political culture obsessed with image, the carefully coiffured and vigorous Mr Romney looks the part of a presidential candidate.

Though his political experience was in liberal Massachusetts, Mr Romney has since made an effort to reach out to the conservative base of the Republican party, shifting his position on several key issues such as gay marriage and abortion, which he previously supported but now appears to have changed his mind about.

Mormons in history

* Mormons consider themselves Christians but, in addition to the two testaments of the Bible, they additionally take their teachings from the Book of Mormon, teachings purportedly revealed to their founder Joseph Smith in 1820.

* The Mormons - the word is usually used interchangeably with the Church of the Latter Day Saints, the largest Mormon group - are concentrated in Salt Lake City, where Gordon Hinckley, 96, is the 15th president and considered a prophet.

* The movement, founded originally in New York but which moved westwards under the leadership of Brigham Young, holds sacred 13 Articles of Faith, set out by Smith.

* The church banned polygamy in 1890, though some small sects still adhere to it.

* Famous Mormons include Seventies pop group The Osmonds.