TAMPA, Florida — On Tuesday night, Ann Romney publicly used the word “Mormon” for the first time in more than a year — marking a new turn in a five-year debate inside Mitt Romney’s circle about how to handle his faith.
Since Romney announced his second presidential campaign 15 months ago, his strategy in dealing with questions about his Mormon faith could be boiled down to three steps: duck, dodge, and weave. But in the past two weeks, the candidate and his team of advisers have made a dramatic about-face in their approach to the religion question; allowing reporters to tag along with the family at church, instructing surrogates to cooperate with cable news specials about Mormonism, and devoting valuable primetime chunks of the Republican convention to anecdotes about the candidate’s church service — an unexpected series of moves that comprise, as one campaign adviser conceded, “a total 180.”
The official explanation for the sudden shift in strategy is that the campaign was always waiting for Tampa — where they would have tight control over the choreography and the narrative — to start telling Mitt’s Mormon story.
“The convention is a good platform for telling all the dimensions of Romney’s life — his service as governor, as the head of the Olympics, businessman, devoted husband and father, and as lay leader in his church counseling families facing different hardships,” senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told BuzzFeed.
Indeed, if Romney has spent the past year trying to keep his faith firmly in the closet, the convention in Tampa appears to be a sort of coming-out party. Thursday night’s program will include brief vignettes told by church members who knew the Republican nominee when he went by Bishop Romney. The invocational prayer that night will be offered by a former Mormon church leader and longtime friend of Romney’s. And aides say the candidate himself will spend part of his highly-anticipated address describing how he has been shaped by Mormonism.
Already, Ann Romney crossed a notable threshold Tuesday night as she described her teenage courtship with Mitt by saying, “I was an Episcopalian; he was a Mormon.” It was one of the first times all year that anyone in the campaign said the word “Mormon” in public.
On the record, aides insist the emphasis on Romney’s faith is nothing new, pointing to the few-and-far-between occasions over the past year when the candidate has made reference to his church service.
But the decision to start owning his religion on the campaign trail was more complicated — and personal — than a mere convention course correction, said people familiar with the evolution. Indeed, the story of his journey to this point is one that shows the candidate’s family struggling with the realities of public life as a religious minority, as the rest of the country grapples with Mormonism knocking on the door of mainstream U.S. culture.
Thursday’s Mormon-heavy program will be the endpoint of a journey that began five years ago.
The day after Thanksgiving in 2007, Tagg Romney, the candidate’s oldest son, phoned a longtime family friend. They were weeks out from the first primary of the season at the time, and the campaign had determined that his father’s path to victory ran through Iowa.
As a result, the Romney family had spent several months, hundreds of man hours, and millions of dollars in a desperate attempt to win over the state’s conservative Evangelical base. While the candidate surrounded himself with every culture warrior he could woo, surrogates — including his wife and five sons — fanned out across the state to bring their family-values message home.
But on the front lines of Iowa’s retail politics, one thing was regularly made clear: There were many Republican voters who held Mormonism in deep contempt. Romney family members were routinely confronted with Bible-bashing Evangelicals on the campaign trail, local pastors spent Sundays sermonizing against “the Mormon cult,” and some voters even refused to shake hands with Romney’s former Lt. Governor Kerry Healey because they thought she was Mormon.
When the family friend asked Tagg how it was going that day in late November, he sounded dispirited.
“It’s brutal,” the friend recalled Tagg saying. “It’s just brutal.”
And yet, for all the animosity they encountered, the Romney campaign was determined to take an educational approach to Mormonism that cycle. The rationale, described by two advisers who worked for the 2008 effort, was that by defining Mormonism as just another Christian faith, Romney could demystify his religion for the all-important Evangelical voter bloc.
Of course, engaging questions about religion carried some risk. In interviews, Romney occasionally found himself wading into the theological weeds on issues like the historical ban of black men from the Mormon priesthood, and the LDS teaching that the Garden of Eden was located in present-day Missouri. And when he delivered a major address titled “Faith in America” aimed at emphasizing the “common creeds” he shared with mainline Christians, many in his target audience were offended that he was trying to equate his faith with theirs.
As part of his effort to reach out to Evangelicals, Romney cooperated with Hugh Hewitt, a conservative talk radio host and vocal supporter, who used his access to write a book, A Mormon in the White House, aimed at allaying the concerns of Evangelical readers.
“I never had any problem getting him to answer questions about his faith,” said Hewitt.
In the end, though, none of it seemed to help. Romney lost Iowa to Mike Huckabee, an insurgent former Baptist minister who had publicly called into question some the candidate’s Mormon beliefs. And while Romney would stay in the race for several more weeks, one adviser who worked for the campaign at the time said the loss was crushing — especially for the candidate’s family, who viewed the defeat, in part, as a referendum on their religion.
“I remember everyone was totally depressed on the plane,” the adviser said, recalling the morning after they lost. “Everyone was exhausted, and Mitt’s going up and down the plane trying to cheer everyone up… It was so hard.”
Many in Romney’s orbit, including some in his family, considered the entire episode a lesson learned. And as he weighed another presidential bid in the run-up to 2012, some of his sons urged him not to do it. Among other reasons, the detractors in the family cited the anti-Mormonism they had encountered on the trail in 2008, said one person familiar with the situation.
When Romney ultimately decided to throw his hat in the ring one last time, he did so with a commitment not to talk religion — born of a desire to protect his family’s faith, and confirmed by his more seasoned campaign advisers, who saw no upside to engaging the issue.
“I think that it was just so hard last time that they were exceedingly careful this time,” said an adviser. “I can’t tell you how many times [the campaign] gets people calling and saying, We want to know what he thinks about blacks and the priesthood, or polygamy.”
“I think part of it was, look, we’re the frontrunner this time,” the adviser added. “Why get into this discussion?”
And so they avoided the discussion entirely. For more than a year, virtually every reporter’s question about Romney’s religious beliefs was met with a curt response from the campaign: “Why don’t you ask his church?”
But with the nomination now in hand the campaign, and the family, have decided that it’s time to present Romney’s faith to the world again.
“It’s something that the governor himself insisted on talking about,” Fehrnstrom told reporters this week at a breakfast hosted by Bloomberg news. “He will make reference to it in his speech and he will hear from other speakers at the conventions about the counseling and pastoral work that Mitt Romney did.”
Indeed, one person close to Romney said he recognizes that his nomination marks an historic moment for his church, and he wants the convention to reflect the faith that has shaped him throughout his life. And now that they’ve gotten through the Republican primary, the campaign sees value in the humanizing anecdotes Romney amassed as a lay minister in his church. The adviser chocked it up to increased confidence — both in their own ability to manage their Mormon messaging, and in the electorate’s ability to get past religious hangups.
Recalling the dog days of the 2008 Iowa primary, the adviser marveled, “To go from there to this — I’m not putting this in a religious context necessarily, but in a political context, it’s a bit of a miracle.”