WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney's address Thursday on his Mormon faith could be the most politically risky speech on religion by a presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy defended his Catholic faith in 1960.
Romney will be addressing two audiences — the evangelical Christians who've helped fuel his rival Mike Huckabee's recent surge in Iowa and an American public that knows little about Romney or his faith, but views the latter skeptically.
If Romney can reassure each audience, the lead he'd held almost all year in first-to-vote Iowa could return, and a victory in its Jan. 3 caucuses could be the springboard he needs to win the Republican presidential nomination.
But calling heightened attention to his Mormonism on Thursday also could backfire, because polls show that many Americans are suspicious and mistrustful of Mormonism.
It seems clear that "the suspicious have found a candidate," said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
That would be Huckabee.
Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas, has opened up a 5-percentage-point lead in Iowa over the former Massachusetts governor, according to a survey released Sunday by the Des Moines Register. Error margin: plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
A good part of Huckabee's momentum comes from the state's large conservative Christian community, polls show. Steve Sheffler, the president of the Iowa Christian Alliance, estimates that about 40 percent of the state's GOP caucus-goers consider themselves evangelical Christians, while an equal number see themselves as social conservatives. The Register poll found that Huckabee led Romney by 16 points among those who consider themselves born-again Christians.
"It seems very likely that the sudden decision to finally do the speech is in response to the latest polling," said David Redlawsk, the director of the University of Iowa Hawkeye poll.
Romney will speak Thursday morning at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.
"Governor Romney believed this was the right moment, the right time to address an issue that is important to him and millions of other Americans," said spokesman Kevin Madden. "It was a personal decision related to the issue of faith and his desire to share his views with the nation he's running to lead."
Analysts suggested that Romney also is looking ahead. If he gets the GOP nomination, chances are he'll have to explain his religion to an even wider audience, much as Kennedy did in September 1960, when skeptics questioned whether he was more loyal to his Catholic faith than to the U. S. Constitution.
Kennedy was under fire from many quarters that summer — including from many Democratic leaders — who wanted him to make an emphatic statement that he firmly understood that church and state were separate.
So he addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association and said at the outset: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president — should he be Catholic — how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote..."
Romney faces a similar challenge and needs to address two distinct concerns, experts said.
First, he has to demystify Mormonism.
"To some it seems cult-like, un-Christian," said Bruce Schulman, a professor of history at Boston University. Mormonism, practiced by an estimated 5.2 million Americans, concerns some Christians because Mormons see the Book of Mormon on a par with the New and Old Testaments.
In addition, some theologians find that Mormonism, a proselytizing religion, tends to compete with certain evangelical Christian denominations.
So what Romney must do is "explain, particularly to evangelical Christians, how Mormonism is Christian," said Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta.
Second, Romney has to show that although Mormonism is a hierarchical religion, like Catholicism, he won't be taking orders from any church authority.
"He has to make it clear that there is a separation between church and state," Schulman said.
When Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, ran as the Democratic candidate for vice president seven years ago, his religion was widely discussed, but he never saw the need to make a major address about the subject.
He would explain patiently why he didn't work on Saturdays or major religious holidays, and some thought he helped himself with conservative voters by citing the Old Testament often and practicing his faith, even during the heat of a presidential campaign.
For months Romney's advisers have been debating whether a Kennedy-type speech was needed. Romney has discussed the politics of his faith at length, at one point telling reporters last year that people previously had said: "Mitt Romney can't be elected governor of Massachusetts, the most — well, one of the most Catholic states in America." Romney won the governorship in 2002 with a 5-percentage-point victory.
Now, "the idea that they decided to give the speech suggests the Romney people think they have a problem," Black said.
Today, historians generally credit Kennedy's speech with defusing the "Catholic issue" 47 years ago. Schulman noted that "it was important to a lot of party leaders."
Most important, the speech gave Kennedy a renewed confidence; it was as though a burden had been lifted.
"No measure is available of how many millions saw the film (of the speech) played and replayed," wrote Theodore H. White in "The Making of the President 1960," "still less is there a measure available of the effect."
Except, said White, for this: "The candidate, always happiest as a man when confronting crisis with action, felt better."
ON THE WEB
Read the Q-and-A session Kennedy conducted with the ministers after the speech.
Listen to the speech.
Read the latest Des Moines Register Iowa poll.