WASHINGTON Four Christian evangelicals have a mission to convince skeptics that while Mitt Romney may be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he should still be their pick for president in the 2008 election.
Writers of the blog EvangelicalsforMitt.org go into great detail about Romney's political career and why he should be the no-brainer choice for "people of faith" in the next election.
"We are looking for a president, not a pastor or a priest," said David French, one of the site's co-founders. He said he may not agree with all tenets of Mormonism, but that's not what matters for the presidency.
The blog is but one piece of evidence that a Romney candidacy could bring a religious undertone to the next presidential race.
As some pundits discuss whether America is ready for a woman president, should Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., run, or a black president with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., the Republicans' Christian base will ponder if they should try to put a Mormon in the White House.
French said there is "not a glimmer of daylight" between Romney and evangelical Christians on issues such as family, abortion, gay marriage and having a firm belief in religion. The doctrinal differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity, such as acceptance of the Book of Mormon as scripture comparable to the Bible, do not belong in the presidential arena, he said.
Nancy French, David's wife and a co-founder of the blog, said Romney is not a "one-note social conservative" who is just against abortion or gay marriage. She said his faith shows that he is not pandering but has a deeply held belief on issues that matches that of evangelicals.
Evangelical Christians do not belong to a single denomination; rather, the term is used to define a cross-section of Christians from a variety of Protestant churches. David French defines evangelicals as those who believe the Bible is flawless, the true word of God, which should be read and applied to daily life.
He said an evangelical will think about what the words of the Bible mean, rather than if the words in the Bible are true.
"So much of it comes down to what you believe about the Bible," French said, which can make it hard for evangelicals to vote for a candidate who follows the Book of Mormon as well.
In the Articles of Faith, an LDS statement of primary beliefs, the Bible is accepted as the word of God, insofar as it "is translated correctly." The Bible is one of four books of scripture accepted by the church as its set of "standard works."
The blog's editors highlight the similarities between Romney's stated positions and their own beliefs.
"Funny that the LDS candidate has had the fewest wives," David French said a reference to the early practice of polygamy in the LDS Church. The practice was banned by the church in 1890.
French pointed to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's very-public divorce from former wife Donna Hanover and his first marriage, which was annulled. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is now married, but his first marriage also ended in divorce. Evangelicals have a heavy emphasis on marriage and family and discourage divorce, as does the LDS faith.
David French noted that any article on Romney will point out he is a Mormon, while other Republican presidential contenders are seldom identified with their religious affiliation.
Giuliani and McCain, who have yet to formally announce presidential bids though they have set up exploratory committees, are Catholic and Episcopalian, respectively.
The blog even has a section titled "But ... He's Mormon" in the "Why We Support Mitt" portion of the site. He said the same questions came up when President John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, ran for president.French said that as religions go, the LDS Church is still pretty new and not as mainstream as other religions, although it is among the fastest-growing religions in the world. Many people do not know much about it, which makes Romney's religious affiliation a unique characteristic, compared to the other candidates.
Experience and agendas
The Frenches, along with Charles Mitchell, who works for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., and Dawn Meling, a business banker in Pittsburgh, started the blog in July, prompted by the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Tennessee in March.
Romney finished second in a straw poll of potential 2008 contenders, behind Tennessee's own Sen. Bill Frist.
The Frenches helped organize the Romney effort at the conference. David French first heard of Romney while at Harvard Law School when Romney ran against Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in 1994. He has supported the politician ever since.
Romney, whose father vied for the GOP presidential nomination in 1968, has not officially declared a presidential bid yet. But now that the 2006 election is over, all eyes have turned to 2008, and those who have expressed an interest in running already are getting close media attention.
Romney is best known in Utah for running the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. He was elected governor of Massachusetts shortly after, and his term expires at the end of the year.
Kelly Patterson, an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University, said that all candidates "bring characteristics and experience to the campaign" and then voters ask about those characteristics and experiences.
Giuliani will like have to answer questions about his handling of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or lack of foreign policy experience, while McCain will have to highlight or defend his Senate record and his reference to some religious leaders as "agents of intolerance" while campaigning against President Bush during the 2000 election.
Romney's religion is just one of those characteristics that will draw attention, Patterson said. "People will be curious about this faith."
David French said the blog has about 5,000 readers a day, but many are journalists, evangelicals and political junkies. "We have received tremendous feedback from the conservative community," he said.
Anthony Corrado, a non-resident government fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor of government at Colby College in Maine, said the religious arm of the Republican party is "likely to vote for someone who shares their values."
He said McCain and Giuliani might split the more moderate and liberal Republican vote, giving the bulk of the conservative vote to Romney.
To avoid making the 2008 primary season more about religion than politics, Romney will have to set a clear agenda of two or three things he wants to do, he said. Right now, it is the "silly season" of an upcoming presidential campaign, Corrado said, where voters do not know much about the candidates.
Meanwhile, blogs like EvangelicalsforMitt.org, are going to play a bigger role in the 2008 election than ever before, Corrado said."You can't simply put them aside," Corrado said. "They have become part of the culture."