Presidential candidate Mitt Romney bristled when a conservative radio talk-show host recently began quizzing him on details of Mormonism, but if history holds true, the former Massachusetts governor likely will be spending more time — not less — talking about his faith.
Spending time in Iowa leading up to this Saturday's Ames straw poll, Romney appeared on WHO-AM 1040 last Thursday, where show host Jan Mickelson quickly brought the conversation around to the abortion debate as well as the position of Mormonism on that topic.
Romney, a Republican and former official in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has said he supported abortion rights when he first became governor, but as he learned more about the practice, and embryonic stem cell research, he ended up opposing it.
Mormon law is critical of abortion procedures as well as those who support it. Romney pointed out in the interview that the religion does not excommunicate those who openly support abortion rights.
Growing visibly agitated at times both on-air and then off — as seen on a video clip of the interview — the former governor told Mickelson his faith is not the issue, his potential leadership as president is.
"I'm not going to have a conversation about what my church views are because ... that's not the nature of the office I'm running for. And there are people in my church who are pro-choice. That is not against my church's view to allow people to have their own position on political issues," Romney said.
But other candidates, historically and in this election, have launched major political offensives to reconcile their political beliefs with their personal faith.
Romney, so far, is cool to talking about Mormonism, but his campaign apparently felt comfortable enough with his appearance to post the video clip on his YouTube site.
Political observer Larry Sabato, speaking with FOX News on Monday, said Romney must address the Mormon issue because some polls are showing many Americans — including Republicans and Democrats — say they won't vote for a Mormon.
A May FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll of 900 adults showed that 21 percent — with Republicans and Democrats just about even — said they were less likely to vote for Romney because he is Mormon. Five percent said they were more likely to vote for Romney, and 71 percent said it didn't make a difference.
Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said posting the clip itself isn't going to be enough.
"That's not how you do it. You do it in a formal speech before some protestant ministers — exactly the way John F. Kennedy did it in September 1960 when he went down to Houston and diffused the Catholicism issue," Sabato said.
Speaking to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Kennedy said he'd rather be talking about issues of substance, "But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately — in some quarters less responsible than this.
"So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in," Kennedy said.
Since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision granting a constitutional right to have an abortion, religion has played a heavy role in political races, especially for abortion rights-supporting Democrats. This year, Republican Rudy Giuliani, a Catholic, has spent a lot of air-time explaining how he favors a woman's right to choose, but opposes abortions and advocates against them, a position that overall is at odds with Catholic doctrine.
Especially problematic for a Romney, who is trying to gain support of his party's conservative wing, is the significant vote of evangelical Christian voters, Sabato said.
"A sizeable proportion of evangelical Christians believe that Mormonism is a cult and they've been taught that by their religious leaders. Romney simply has to confront that. He has no choice," he said.
Romney, speaking with the talk-show host on Thursday, didn't appear to be heading in that direction, however.
"I'm not running as a Mormon," Romney told Mickelson as he was heading out of the studio. "I'm not running to talk about Mormonism."
Mickelson said he was trying to impart advice to Romney about how to assuage concerns of Evangelicals and other conservatives.
"Here's your opportunity to have that settled in your mind," Romney said. "I was governor four years. I had a number of pieces of legislation that came to my desk that dealt with abortion, abstinence education, RU-486 and so forth. I vetoed any bill that was in favor of choice. I was entirely consistent in favor of life. So it's not just my word that you have to take, but my record."