News just in: Mitt Romney is to deliver a “Faith in America” address on Thursday.
The speech will undoubtedly be one of those rare “big, emotional campaign moments” – moments that, in an age where politics is so often reduced to pettiness and cold calculation, still make the heart beat that bit faster.
Far less certain though, is whether it will work. Can Romney stem Mike Huckabee’s inexorable rise in the early primary states?
My feeling, as I said a while back, is that it can. This speech could give Romney’s campaign the narrative it has lacked up to this point, and allow voters to get a (carefully managed) glimpse of the man behind the management consultant.
It’s a big risk though. Although all the press will focus on the Kennedy comparison, Romney cannot take the JFK amendment on this one, as this excellent post in Politico makes clear. He has founded his campaign on the belief that he can remake “the house that Reagan built”, reforming the Republican coalition based on the Christian right. He cannot come out now and say that a man’s religion should play no active role in his politics.
So he has to tread a fine line, maintaining on one hand that his religious background qualifies him to represent “values voters”, while downplaying on the other the significance of his particular faith.
Early comments from advisers make clear that Romney’s goal is to de-legitimize criticism and suspicion of his faith by stressing the broad themes of religious liberty, the grand tradition of religious tolerance, the role of faith in public life. “It won’t be Mormon 101”, an aide said.
Fair enough – no one wants a bible studies class. But big themes alone aren’t enough. Voters are worried about specific issues: if he is to capture the public mood, to appear as bold and decisive, then Romney has to address them directly. Not all the way down to his choice of underpants, but at least to the point where he says “I am a Mormon. if you don’t like that, then tough”.
Voters value candour. For Romney, it’s now or never.