Even though Mitt Romney can't seem to dislodge Rudy Giuliani atop the national GOP polls, and can't even draw as much poll support as Fred Thompson, who isn't even running yet, there is an understandable anticipatory buzz about him.
He may well be the eventual choice of his party if the Thompson phenomenon fizzles or if Giuliani supporters simply grow weary of navigating the obstacles posed by his past and his politics.
In an appearance in Texas last week, I saw Romney energize a crowd with just the kind of speech a GOP nominee should give -- strong and unapologetic on the war, upbeat and resolute about the future. This is a typical Romney performance, and it earns him speculation that he has nowhere to go but up.
This is wholly deserved. But the issue of his religion, which some say has been overplayed, has in fact not been addressed with nearly the thoroughness and honesty that will be necessary to satisfy some in the Republican voting base.
It has not been addressed well by the candidate, and it has not been handled honestly by pundits. Until it is, it lurks as a torpedo that could spell the doom of his promising candidacy.
On radio and in print, I have made clear that Romney's membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a non-issue to me. But this does not mean it is a non-issue for him or to America.
I have known several Mormons in my life. They are all superb people, and I envision nothing in their faith that would peel me away from backing an LDS candidate.
But my conclusion has come only after a thorough examination of what Mormons believe. Some of it is vastly divergent from what I believe, and I have had to consider whether that is acceptable to me in a candidate.
It turns out that it is, just as I would not rule out a Jewish candidate, with whom I actually have a disagreement over whether Jesus is the Son of God.
But most Americans have not examined what Mormons believe, and when they do, some of them are going to recoil. It is a lot to swallow, from the prophet status afforded a young farmer named Joseph Smith to the scriptures he supposedly transcribed from golden plates whose location was revealed to him by an angel.
There are a number of beliefs in Mormonism that directly contradict mainstream Christianity, and which challenge objective history. The question is: how many people will learn of these things and run in the direction of other candidates?
If the answer is not many, Romney can survive. If it is more than a few, he is cooked. But one thing is for certain: he can not duck the nuts and bolts of his faith forever.
When the Webcam kept rolling during commercials in the studios of WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa a few weeks back, we learned that Gov. Romney is growing weary of defending his faith.
That is not good news, because he has scarcely begun that unavoidable task. And now I have experienced firsthand from this worthy, gifted candidate, just how tired he is of answering such questions.
When I addressed this subject in my Dallas Morning News column of August 16, his people called me within a day. We set up an interview time and a roughly 15-minute window. I didn't want to come right out of the box with questions I knew might antagonize him, so we talked immigration for a few minutes before I tiptoed into Mormonism and whether he needs to start talking more about it.
Since that was the culminating thrust of my column, I thought he might be willing to entertain a thoughtful examination of what Mormons believe and how those beliefs might strike those considering his candidacy.
I could not have been more mistaken. In a spirit of genuine admiration and even support, I ventured into my thesis that LDS beliefs are going to strike some voters as fairly peculiar, and that only he can make them comfortable.
Through a clenched smile that I could hear over the phone, I learned in no uncertain terms that he has no intention of following my suggestion. That gives me enormous doubt as to his viability.
"If anyone wants to know what I believe," he told me, "they can look at my family and me and our kids and make an assessment of that. But you know, if they want to learn more about doctrine, they can always contact the church."
That last point is true, but his ramp up to it is vapid. Examining Mormon families reveals only that the faith is capable of cranking out people with high behavioral standards, which is wonderful. But it in no way serves as a substitute for an understanding of what his faith actually teaches. And when it comes to that, the candidate reverts to that now officially tired line of "I'm not running for pastor-in-chief."
No one says he is. But if his successes continue beyond small gatherings of Iowans, critics are going to hit him from every side with details of LDS doctrine. Most are not going to be as accommodating as I am. And if he shrinks from it then, he's finished.
That's why he needs to gut up and face some questions now. Like the one I fashioned from an e-mail I received from a potential supporter who had done some homework.
"I really like Governor Romney," he had said, "but I need to hear him address some details of what I can only consider bizarre."
So I asked him: if an entire society existed in North America for centuries before and after the birth of Christ, planting crops, worshiping in a Judeo-Christian fashion, using an Egyptian-Hebrew hybrid language, riding chariots and smelting iron, wouldn't there be archeological evidence of it?
Let's just say he didn't accept my invitation down that path.
"I really don't think it's productive for me to say 'let me tell you about this doctrine or that doctrine,'" he explained. "I'm not a spokesman for my church."
This grows frustrating. No one is asking him to be the PR man for Mormons everywhere. But what Romney considers "unproductive," many voters will consider necessary if they are to even begin to weigh his many attributes.
Don't hold your breath. As I gingerly suggested these might be matters voters would crave some answers on, he imagined what he thought was a comparable scenario from nearly 50 years ago.
"'Senator Kennedy," he asked, posing as an imaginary questioner in JFK's tricky 1960 drama involving doubts about his Catholicism, "Do you really believe that that wafer turns into the body of Christ, do you really believe that? Has there been chemical analysis in the stomachs of people after they've taken communion?' These are not questions you ask someone who's running for President."
On this, Gov. Romney is 100 percent wrong. This is exactly what you ask someone who seeks to lead your country if he practices a faith so mysterious to so many. If someone truly were rendered uneasy about transubstantiation, there is nothing wrong with asking a Catholic candidate to explain it, just as a Jewish presidential candidate will someday have to answer why he has chosen not accept Jesus as a personal savior. Religion means a lot to people. Candidates who are comfortable in their own religious skin can attract voters who will find other things to like. Those ducking the issue tend to attract suspicion.
Yet that is, and apparently will be, the continuing Romney policy. I don't know if the Governor thought he had successfully turned the tables in this next remark, but when he asked: "Do you think it makes a lot of sense for a Methodist to get up and say 'Let me tell you the unusual beliefs of the Methodist religion that you all don't know,'" I nearly jumped through the phone.
"Yes! That's exactly my point!" I wondered what that strange buried Methodist dogma was that he had in mind, but I gave him benefit of the doubt for grasping at a religion purely for the sake of example.
"That's not the course I'm going to be following," he concluded as we reached the end of our allotted time. He certainly has that right.
But the fact is that millions of Americans are going to do exactly what he says. They will indeed study up on Mormonism. And when they find something that is genuinely off-putting, it's not lds.org or Wikipedia that needs to smooth it over. It's Mitt Romney.
I believe he can do it. What a shame that he doesn't want to.