Mitt Romney spoke today at the Commencement for evangelist Pat Robertson’s Regent University. The speech was relatively apolitical but the act of giving it certainly wasn’t. The Romney campaign has realized what analysts see as his primary vulnerability, his Mormon religion. Most Americans don’t know anything about Mormonism and those that do often only know that it promotes polygamy (Though polygamy has been illegal since the late 19th century). This, of course, does not bode well for Romney who needs Christian conservatives to win the primary, or at this point, really just can’t afford to alienate any group before the primary.
The speech does not represent a flip-flop or even an evolving opinion, but it does signify a shift in the rhetoric of the Romney campaign. In the early days of his candidacy Romney relied on his Mormonism to garner support and funding. He spoke of religious tolerance in the election on Jay Leno just a few weeks ago, saying:
Americans don’t choose leaders based on what church they go to. They look to people who share the same values as them. I think America is ready for people of almost any faith to lead the country
While this may be true, Romney isn’t taking any chances. His campaign has set up a nationwide network of Mormon volunteers and donor, according to the Boston Globe;
Over the past two months, Romney’s political operatives and church leaders have discussed building a grass-roots political organization using alumni chapters of Brigham Young University’s business school around the country. More recently, representatives of BYU, which is run by the church, and Romney’s political action committee have begun soliciting help from prominent Mormons, including a well-known author suggested by the governor, to build the program, which Romney advisers dubbed Mutual Values and Priorities, or MVP.
This grassroots Mormon outreach effort may have been enough to keep Romney in the race through the first quarter, and help him to be the Republican candidate with the most raised funds, but a solely Mormon base of support wont sustain him through to the primary and certainly not in the general election. This is where Pat Robertson’s invitation to speak fits nicely into the Romney roadmap. Romney needs to lessen his ties with the Mormon base and begin to build support among other conservative groups, namely Evangelicals.
Many evangelicals were angered by the invitation for Romney to speak and messages from students at Regent indicate skepticism or downright anger. His speech, however, was conveniently free from religion. He talked of faith, but of no particular religion and certainly not of Mormonism or Christianity specifically. He quoted the Bible a number of times to show that his faith is rooted in the Christian faith and he had very kind words for Pat Robertson himself saying;
This university, its students, its alumni and the faculty serve as an example of Dr. Robertson’s dedication to strengthening and then nurturing the pillars of this community and our country: education, fellowship and advancement
It will be interesting to see how Romney will realign his campaign in the coming months, today, in preperation for the upcoming Republican debate in South Carolina, Romney announced a grassroots push to sign up new supporters according to Hotline:
The campaign hopes to sign up 24,000 supporters within 24 hours using a combination of house parties, rallies and technology. A memo distributed to supporters yesterday says the event will demonstrate “the power of Mitt’s grassroots network” by showing Republicans the breadth of his support. Once those 24,000K Mitt-lings are signed up, chances are they’ll be asked to contribute money. Romney raised twice as much as Sen. John McCain last quarter, but McCain tapped the wallets of three times as many donors. Romney needs fewer mega-donors and more smaller donors.
The success or failure of this grassroots campaign will determine whether Romney has been successful in shedding his reliance Mormonism and whether he can compete as the Conservative candidate instead of the Mormon candidate.