"It doesn't matter that Mormonism is by now a very fast-growing and successful religion," he adds. "It doesn't matter that Romney's Mormon faith has in no way impeded his political career thus far. Same with Harry Reid [the Senate Democratic leader, also a Mormon]…. When ordinary people start to think about Mormonism, the word that flits across their brain is 'cult.' "
Romney is keenly aware of this fact and has organized "faith and values steering committees" – one national, several statewide – made up of prominent supporters from a range of faiths. The committees advise the campaign on values-related issues and grass-roots outreach.
In addition, Romney has sought to carve out an image of openness toward the public and press. He has held more than 100 "ask-me-anything"-style events in early primary states and has sat for countless interviews with journalists, some of whom have posed the most intimate of questions regarding his religious practices and personal life. Usually Romney takes them in good humor, though in a recent talk- radio interview, he got testy when the host pushed hard on his faith. Romney also defers to church headquarters in Salt Lake City when questioned on Mormon beliefs, such as those about Jesus' past and future ministries on the American continent.
Romney's approach to the press extended to his home on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire last month, when he invited about 30 journalists for an off-the-record barbecue with his family and campaign staff. (Reporters paid for their own meals.) Most of his immediate family was there – four of his five sons, their wives, and the 10 grandchildren. (Note to those keeping score: No. 11 is on the way.) Oldest son Tagg offered rides around the lake in a motorboat.
If part of the point was to show family values in action, it worked. Among Romney backers, the hope seems to be that eventually the Mormon theme will play out and the media will move on. For now, though, it's still a matter of public concern, or at least curiosity. In public forums, Romney's approach is to steer his rhetoric away from the specifics of his faith and toward the common ground of values, God, and patriotism – themes that play especially well among GOP primary voters.