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Mitt Romney’s Mormonism Marks Tricky Territory for GOP Rivals

October 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
After endorsing Gov. Rick Perry at the Value Voters Summit in Washing on Friday, Baptist minister Robert Jeffress focused on GOP candidate Mitt Romney's faith, saying, "Mormonism is a cult." Judy Woodruff discusses the role of religion in the Republican presidential race with the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the latest evidence of the role religion may play in the 2012 presidential campaign. It surfaced at a forum for the Republican contenders at the end of last week.

The spark was struck at the Value Voters Summit in Washington on Friday. Baptist Minister Robert Jeffress of Dallas took the stage to introduce the man he’s backing for president, Gov. Rick Perry.

REV. ROBERT JEFFRESS, First Baptist Church of Dallas: Rick Perry is a proven leader. He is a true conservative, and he is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffress turned to Perry’s rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and his Mormon faith in an interview afterwards.

REV. ROBERT JEFFRESS: In my estimation, Mormonism is a cult. And it would give credence to a cult to have a Mormon candidate. I believe Mitt Romney is a good, moral person, has a wonderful family, but that’s not what makes you a Christian.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney spoke at the Value Voters Summit on Saturday and opted not to take on Jeffress directly. Instead, he counseled tolerance and restraint.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: Poisonous language doesn’t advance our cause. It’s never softened a single heart, nor changed a single mind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gov. Perry brushed aside questions on the issue as he campaigned Friday in Iowa. But he issued a statement saying he doesn’t believe Mormonism is a cult.

On the Sunday talk shows, other Republican presidential candidates criticized Rev. Jeffress’s statement, but were careful when asked if Romney is a Christian.

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) presidential candidate: None of us should sit in judgment on somebody else’s religion. And I thought it was very unwise and very inappropriate.

BOB SCHIEFFER, “Face The Nation”: Well, do you think that Mitt Romney is a Christian?

NEWT GINGRICH: I think he’s a Mormon, and Mormons define themselves as a branch of Christianity.

CANDY CROWLEY, “State of The Union”: Is Mitt Romney not a Christian?

HERMAN CAIN, (R) presidential candidate: He’s a Mormon. That much, I know. I am not going to do an analysis of Mormonism vs. Christianity for the sake of answering that. I’m not getting into that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney has had to deal with the issue before, in his failed 2008 campaign for the Republican nomination.

MITT ROMNEY: I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person shouldn’t be elected because of his faith, nor should he be rejected because of his faith. If I’m fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest. A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This time around, Romney is one of two Mormon candidates in the GOP race. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is the other.

For more, we are joined by David Brody. He’s the chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network.

And, David, it’s good to see you again.

DAVID BRODY, Christian Broadcasting Network: Thanks, Judy. Great to see you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how did this pastor’s comment come about, and did the Perry campaign have anything to do with it?

DAVID BRODY: No, there’s no indication that the Perry campaign had anything to do with it. As a matter of fact, this is starting to be a problem for the Perry campaign.

I mean, everywhere Rick Perry goes, as we saw a little bit in that piece, he’s being confronted with the question: Do you think Mormonism is a cult? I mean, this could be a problem for Perry because there are quite a few evangelicals who think Mormonism is a cult.

And so if Perry is going to say, no, Mormonism isn’t a cult, well, then indeed that could be problematic because he’s going against many of his evangelical base.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, so what do you see as the immediate effect on the campaign, what this pastor said and how the other candidates are responding?

DAVID BRODY: Well, as it relates to the Perry campaign, I think they’re going to have to just address it straight on. There was a statement, as you mentioned, put out.

But I think at some point, Rick Perry — and there is a debate in New Hampshire tomorrow night and one in Las Vegas the next week — at some point, Rick Perry is probably going to have to be pretty strong about it and say, look, I — whether he uses the word distance or whatever word he decides to use, but he’s going to have to pretty much make that break if he wants just to put this behind him.

And I say him because at this point, with Jeffress tied to Perry, this is something the Perry campaign is going to have to deal with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying that Perry at this — is on the spot after this?

DAVID BRODY: I think to a degree. But I think it’s also a news cycle story as well. Maybe it’s more than just one news cycle, probably a couple.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let’s talk about the role of Mormonism. We mentioned in that piece just now that Mitt Romney did address his Mormonism in the last campaign. Has he talked about it in this campaign?

DAVID BRODY: You know, he really hasn’t.

I spoke to him in 2007, when he was governor of Massachusetts. He was just getting ready to run in 2008. And he did talk about it. As a matter of fact, he talked about it at length with me. But in this campaign, in 2012, it hasn’t come up at all until this — these comments by the pastor.

And, look, I mean, I think Mitt Romney and his campaign would be the first to admit that that’s the way it should be, that, in other words, this shouldn’t come up and that it’s a been-there/done-that story and that this has been vetted, if you will, if that’s the correct word, in 2008.

And now with the economy taking center stage in 2012, it’s time that the train has left the station on this, at least according to the Romney campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — but what do the polls show? Among those Republican voters who Romney needs to win, to get to the nomination, which is what he wants, what do they think about Mormonism?

DAVID BRODY: Well, there’s a numbers problem for him.

It’s kind of like in kindergarten, where you give everybody else the head-start in the race, and then the person — you know, there’s one kindergartner who is far back. This is the situation with Mitt Romney. In other words, the Michele Bachmanns and the Herman Cains and the Rick Perrys are all starting with a lead, if you will, because there’s a problem with evangelical voters as it relates to Mitt Romney.

Thirty percent, maybe even 40 percent, won’t even take a look at him. And so Mitt Romney is at a disadvantage already to begin with. But the good news for Mitt Romney is that, at least what we have seen in 2012, that he’s been the most solid candidate of everyone in terms of being able to not make any mistakes and to be able to be pretty adept during those debates.

And so he’s going to have to be on his game from the beginning for people to take even a second look at him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to ask you about that in a minute.

But remind us, when you say 30 some percent of evangelical voters say they could not vote for someone who is a Mormon, what portion, what proportion do they make up of the Republican vote in those key, those early primaries?

DAVID BRODY: Well, Iowa, it’s close to 60 percent. Some will say anywhere from 40 to 60 percent, but really is — if you look at the trend, it’s anywhere from 50 to 60 percent for sure.

And in South Carolina, it’s close to 60 percent. And so if you look at the actual primary states and the calendar that’s coming up here, Iowa, South Carolina are two states that Mitt Romney is going to have problems in just to begin with. He needs to do well in New Hampshire — he is — Nevada as well. It all comes down to Florida for Mitt Romney, because the truth of the matter, as it relates to the Mormonism issue, if he can win Florida, it may be a “train left the station” scenario and people will get on board.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then if you — if — this is all speculative — if he were to win the nomination and head into the general election, what does it look like at that point among Democratic voters, independents, who wouldn’t have participated in those primaries?

DAVID BRODY: Well, I think this is the biggest challenge, Judy, for the Romney campaign if they win the nomination, because we have already heard people like David Axelrod, a few others coming up with the “weird” word — and they put that in quotes, that Romney seems a little weird.

We’re already hearing that now. When it comes to the general election, if Mitt Romney is the nominee, you can be sure there are going to be Democratic staffers, liberal staffers somewhere getting ready to release and leak certain memos to reporters about the Mormonism religion. And I think this could be really a potential problem with independent voters come 2012.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even though, as you said a minute ago, it’s pretty much assumed that the economy is going to continue to be the big issue in the primaries and then again in the general election?

DAVID BRODY: Absolutely.

And I think this is the best news of all for Mitt Romney, that it is the economy in 2012. It wasn’t the situation in 2008 at all. And the last time I checked, evangelicals, who are social conservatives, are also fiscal conservatives.

And the last time I also checked, they want a job just as much as the next person. And so, if Mitt Romney can speak to that, there will be a lot more folks that will not worry about the Mormonism as much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, just quickly, you have written a book about the role evangelicals are playing in the Tea Party movement. And, of course, that is going to be a huge factor in the turnout in these primaries.

DAVID BRODY: Yes. Yes. Well, the book is coming out in June of next year.

And I call them the Teavangelicals. It’s a word I coined because, as I looked around the country, there are indeed so many evangelicals within the Tea Party movement. And so this is a challenge, quite frankly, for Mitt Romney to appeal to not just evangelicals, but also the Tea Party.

And so I think what we’re finding is we will have a Teavangelical-type candidate vs. potentially a Mitt Romney as we move forward in those primaries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fascinating. Well, we will continue to keep an eye on it. I know you will. And we will have you back to talk about it.

DAVID BRODY: Thanks, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brody, thank you very much.

DAVID BRODY: Thanks, Judy.