Romney on religion

and Suzanne Sataline

COLLEGE STATION, Texas""Mitt Romney's speech Thursday about religious freedom, aimed at allaying concerns about his Mormon faith, elicited mixed reviews among some of the evangelicals whose votes are seen as vital to his winning the Republican presidential nomination.

It remains to be seen if the address, short on specifics about the former Massachusetts governor's personal beliefs, will boost his standing among the evangelical bloc, where he is facing tough competition from Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister.

Between many historical references illustrating the connection between politics and religion, Mr.Romney gave sporadic insights into his personal faith. He made it clear that he wouldn't allow the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to influence his decisions as president. In an attempt to silence speculation about his belief in Jesus Christ, he said, "I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind."

Romney acknowledged differences between his church and other religions. He said those differences should be a test of tolerance, not fodder for criticism, and he paid homage to the traditions of other religions, including "the approachability of God in the prayers of the evangelicals" and "the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims."

The idea of pluralism and acceptance appealed to Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who attended the speech but hasn't, and won't, endorse a candidate.

"People of religious faith respect genuine religious conviction," he said.

For some Christians, however, there's no getting past the differences. Romney's speech didn't win the vote of Steve Carlson, a Republican who describes himself as an undecided conservative from Sioux City, Iowa. Carlson, a Pentecostal Christian and a consultant for the nonprofit voter-education organization Iowa Christian Alliance, said, "If my choice is between Mike Huckabee, who I know is saved, and Gov. Romney, who as a Mormon ... I'm going to pick Mike Huckabee."

"We are leery," said Janis Groves, 59 years old and a Baptist. Ms. Groves, who attended yesterday's speech at the George Bush Presidential Library, says she hasn't decided among the candidates.

Romney's remarks squelched some of her concerns about Mormonism and warmed her to him as a candidate. "I have to admit, discernment tells me that he is a good man," she said. She said she would support him if he were the nominee: "I would rather have a man of faith, even a Mormon."

In days leading up to the speech, Romney said it wouldn't be about his faith. Ms. Groves said she was glad Romney focused on faith and avoided specifics on Mormonism. Romney mentioned the word "Mormon" only once, about five minutes into his address.

Others found his lack of personal commentary disappointing.

"I don't think it answered any questions about the Mormon religion and how it plays into his candidacy," said Joe Mack, director of the office of public policy for the South Carolina office of the Southern Baptist Convention. "I'm not sure it changed the minds of South Carolina Baptists."

Mack said he will choose a candidate based on where the candidate stands on antiabortion issues, but he wouldn't disclose his preference.

Romney, who prefers business-like presentations using bullet points and is at his best on the stump with off-the-cuff remarks, said he wrote the speech himself.

The text, released shortly before the speech, was eloquent, but his delivery was stiff and somewhat hesitant. A friend attributed that to nerves.

"As he stood up there, he recognized what he faced," said Steve Coltrin, who worked with Romney at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

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