Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

He's got the CV and the spray-on smile - but could a Mormon make it to the Oval Office? The Governor of Massachusetts certainly looks the part, but he still has to face his 'JFK moment'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mitt Romney was in town last week. He is the Republican Governor of Massachusetts - tall, slender and glossy, with those craggy good looks and a spray-on smile that in America are the hallmark of television news anchors or aspiring White House candidates. Mr Romney falls into the latter category - but with an intriguing twist. Should he win, he would be America's first Mormon president.

He insists that he is merely "testing the waters". Which is precisely why he spent part of last Wednesday afternoon at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, talking about how to improve a US public school system that is manifestly failing to deliver the goods.

The answer, he argued, lay in more charter schools (publicly funded but independently run) and more rigorous teaching standards. But it wasn't the details that were important. Mr Romney was setting out his stall for a presidential run. And, I have to admit, the not-yet candidate impressed, fluent and passionate about a traditionally Democratic issue which Republicans are trying to make their own.

These are early days in the 2008 race, even in this era of the permanent campaign. But Mr Romney has already put down some intriguing markers. At the southern Republican convention in Memphis last month, this northern politician came second, behind the home-state favourite, Tennessee's outgoing Senate majority leader Bill Frist. And this in a Bible Belt state where many regard the Mormons as a deviant Christian cult.

Mr Romney has the CV as well. His father, George, was Governor of Michigan and ran for the presidency himself in 1968 before self-destructing when he was "brainwashed" by the generals into supporting the Vietnam war. The son is a successful businessman, who made a fortune as a venture capitalist before taking over as chief of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He is widely credited with rescuing the games after a bribery scandal had almost scuppered them.

As a Republican politician who gave Teddy Kennedy the closest Senate race of his career, in 1994, and who was elected governor of one of the most Democratic states in the union, Mr Romney has obvious appeal to independents and centrists. And this despite his strong conservatism on social issues. He is, for instance, a strong opponent of abortion and gay marriage, and a supporter of the death penalty (which he vainly tried to re-introduce in staunchly abolitionist Massachusetts). In short, he's got the bases covered, as they say in baseball. Except one: his religion.

Thus far he's handled the issue adroitly - in other words, he's managed to make people forget he's a Mormon at all. At first glance, Mr Romney comes across as a standard-issue social conservative who has made a big pitch for the Catholic constituency, travelling to Rome last month to attend the ceremony elevating Sean O'Malley, then Archbishop of Boston, to the rank of cardinal. It is, of course, a pure coincidence that Catholics are particularly thick on the ground in a band of north-eastern states where presidential elections are won and lost: notably Michigan, Pennsylvania and, of course, Ohio, where George Bush clinched his narrow victory over John Kerry.

But in modern US campaigns there is no escaping religion - as Mr Kerry discovered when, visibly ill at ease, he was obliged publicly to discuss his very private, low-key Catholicism. The political pundits are already treating Governor Romney as a "top-tier" candidate. Sooner or later, he will have to confront the Mormon issue head on.

"I believe Jesus Christ is my saviour. I believe in God," he answers questioners. "I'm a person of faith and I believe that's the type of person Americans want." But a "JFK moment" will surely come, comparable to the time in 1960 when the future 35th President was forced to to lay to rest suspicions about his Catholicism.

In some respects, Mr Romney will have it easier. No one suggests the Mormons are in the pocket of a foreign power. But to many they are still suspect - for their secrecy, for their former teaching that blacks were an inferior race (only in 1978 did the Mormons permit black pastors) - and of course for polygamy. The Mormons banned polygamy in 1890, though some renegade individuals and sects continue the practice. But the topic still fascinates - as shown by the current HBO sitcom Big Love, which depicts the modern adventures of a man in Salt Lake City (where Mormons have their world headquarters) with three households.

So what does Mr Romney think of the show? "The Governor doesn't have much time to watch TV," a spokeswoman said. "But when he does, he likes to watch My Name is Earl or 24." Suffice to say, he'll soon have to come up with a better answer than that.