The Holy Cow! Candidate

Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, loves data, hates waste, and reveres Dwight Eisenhower. He's also the Next Big Thing in the Republican Party. But can anyone so clean-cut, so pure of character, and (by gosh!) so square overcome the "two Ms"—Mormonism and Massachusetts—to be our next president?

Which doesn't mean, of course, that Romney is incapable of being politically coy when it suits him. Though he hasn't publicly announced any decisions yet, he clearly does have one eye fixed on bigger things. In Spartanburg, South Carolina, speaking before a packed room in late February, he railed against gay marriage and the creation of embryos for use in stem-cell research. Many of South Carolina's most important party leaders and power brokers showed up to watch him.

Romney has kept up his travels to key 2008 primary states, and has been doing political fundraising nationwide. Meanwhile, some of his friends have created a collection of political-action committees, dubbed the Commonwealth PACs. These were started, as his close friend and former business colleague Bob White told me, "to help Republicans primarily at the state level around the country." Last year the PACs contributed $76,000 to local Republicans in Iowa, site of the momentum-generating first caucus.

But all this will be for naught if Romney can't answer one of the biggest questions that would dog his candidacy. As it happens, it's a question that had slipped my mind as I was discussing the prospect of a national Romney candidacy with Ted Kennedy on the phone one Saturday afternoon. (Once Romney's nemesis and conqueror, Kennedy now speaks respectfully of him, as does Boston's Democratic mayor, Tom Menino; both Kennedy and Menino have collaborated with Romney on various projects. Romney and Senator John Kerry, on the other hand, seem to want nothing to do with each other.) I was winding down our conversation when Senator Kennedy interrupted me. "The one question you didn't ask," he said, "was about Mormonism—whether it would hurt him in a national campaign."

"I was about to," I said.

"The answer is no," Kennedy said. "We've moved on. That died with my brother Jack."

Romney himself says he serves the people, not the Book of Mormon. But though the matter should have died with the election of Jack Kennedy (who himself spoke on religious freedom at the Mormon Tabernacle in 1960), Romney's religion remains—as a prominent Republican strategist who worked on both George W. Bush campaigns told me—"the other M."

"There are two Ms—Massachusetts and Mormonism—and they're the elephants in the room," this strategist said. "And the question is whether they step on him or ride him to victory. I think that's a challenge for him to overcome in conservative Christian circles. Romney's people have to have a strategy to beat it, to win on that point."

When I told him Romney's line about keeping his personal beliefs separate from his political practices, the strategist was blunt. "You have to do better than that. He'll have to answer questions under the hot lamp: What do you believe? What is the faith you believe in in relation to public policy? I don't know what the answers to those questions are, but I know those questions exist. And he'll have to answer them."

In speaking to Romney's family members and colleagues and fellow politicians over the course of several months, I felt awkward asking these questions. Mitt Romney is not Rick Santorum, who is evidently incapable of being photographed without a Bible in his hand. But after reading about how deeply committed his father was to the faith (for instance, making the decision to run for governor of Michigan only after discussing it with David O. McKay, the president of the Mormon Church, and spending twenty-four hours fasting and praying), I finally asked Romney, "How Mormon are you?"

"How Mormon am I?" he said. "You know, the principles and values taught to me by faith are values I aspire to live by and are as American as motherhood and apple pie. My faith believes in family, believes in Jesus Christ. It believes in serving one's neighbor and one's community. It believes in military service. It believes in patriotism; it actually believes this nation had an inspired founding. It is in some respects a quintessentially American faith, and those values are values I aspire to live by. And I'm not perfect, but I'm one aspiring to be a good person as defined by the biblical Judeo-Christian standards that our society would recognize."

"Do you wear the temple garments?" I asked uncomfortably, referring to the special undergarments worn by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. (The underwear has markings denoting the covenants of the Mormon faith, and is meant to serve as a reminder of the high standards Mormons are expected to uphold. The rules governing its wear and disposal seem as complex as those pertaining to, say, the American flag.)

He answered, "I'll just say those sorts of things I'll keep private."

For the moment that's the way Romney and his inner circle have kept his national ambitions: private. "Who knows?" Ann Romney said when I asked her what will happen between 2005 and 2008. Tagg Romney said he thought his father would "consider" running for president. Mitt's brother Scott said he didn't know whether Mitt would run—that there were too many factors and variables out of his control. At a press conference in late June, Mitt acknowledged that he was "testing national waters" (he subsequently accused Massachusetts of "hyperventilation" over this acknowledgment).

With me Romney wouldn't address any issue beyond the Massachusetts state line. Nothing about John Bolton. Nothing about Tom DeLay. Finally I listlessly tossed him the question. "Are you going to run for—" I started. But before I could finish, Romney began to laugh.

"You know the answer to that, of course," he said. "I'm focused on the job I've got. I like the job I've got, and it's too remote both in time and in probability to spend time thinking about at this stage."

And so for the moment Romney—like the elastic "Mr. Fantastic" he so closely resembles—will continue to stretch himself thin, keeping one leg planted in the home state where he seems to be steadily losing favor and the other in the national Republican base whose esteem for him seems only to be growing. If he can hold on in Massachusetts through the 2006 election (and maybe even if not), his reach, whatever he says or won't say now, may well turn out to extend to a 2008 presidential nomination and beyond.

Sridhar Pappu is an Atlantic correspondent. His profile of Geraldo Rivera appeared in the June issue.
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