Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is making a big mistake by prolonging the discussion about his faith. Worse still, he and his staff don't see it.
Last week, Romney, a member of the Latter-Day Saints or Mormon Church, answered back to the Rev. Robert Jeffress, whose off-camera comments apparently labeled the Mormon faith a cult. Romney kept the issue alive in the Las Vegas debate. He would help himself much more by ignoring it all and letting others defend him.
For the moment it appears that the incident is a major plus for Romney and it must surely feel that way inside his campaign. Romney has been lovingly embraced by the national media who has risen up to condemn the Southern Baptist preacher.
In general, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the world, is not very popular with the media. (Who can forget Christiane Amanpour's documentary "God's Warriors," which likens religious right youth to Islamic terrorists, and is now watched on computers in the dorms of Christian Universities to howls of laughter.)
This defense of Romney must surely be a "feel good" moment for Latter Day Saints, who are too often targets of the very bigotry that the Jeffress moment seemed to imply. But not so fast. The Saints should not break out the bottles of cranberry juice just yet.
Here is the rub. Romney doesn't need the national media to win the nomination or the presidency. Reagan and both Bushes won without it. And it's a good thing. Romney won't get it no matter how many undeserved wounds he incurs in the internecine GOP contest.
The national media had its best opportunity to be truly nonpartisan when their GOP favorite, John McCain, won the nomination last time. But McCain had no chance against the historic tide and media extravaganza of electing an African-American president. So Romney's moment also will be short-lived. And his unwillingness to understand that speaks to his ongoing misunderstanding of evangelical numbers.
Here's a short way to put it. He won a moment with the media, which he didn’t need and will be all forgotten in the general election and he lost a chance to win points with evangelical leaders of influence who only need to hesitate — not oppose him, just hesitate — to cost him the White House.
While the media continue to attack Jeffress, his fellow Southern Baptists cry foul. The pastor's moment of infamy, they say, was a little more complicated than it seems.
Jeffress was baited by a journalist questioning him offstage. He was asked what most pastors think and he answered, as the messenger. The very next day The Washington Post ran a story about a poll of 1,000 pastors. Sixty-seven percent in the survey called Mormonism a cult.
No one took The Washington Post to task, even though they too, like Jeffress, were the messenger.
So what should Mitt Romney have done?
He should have remained silent, transcendent, Reaganesque, above the fray. Like Jesus before Pilate. As the Proverbs say, “It is an honor to overlook an insult.” It is what Barack Obama does daily. Romney should have let others in the evangelical movement come to his rescue.
It is very obvious what happened. Gov. Romney must be exasperated with his slow acceptance in the evangelical community. His staffers, who are on his payroll, probably encouraged him, saying “Answer back. Stand up. It will be a good moment.
There is one thing that trumps religious doctrine with the American people and that’s leadership. It will be your Reagan moment. "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green," Reagan memorably said. Or like George H. W. Bush standing up to Dan Rather. Jeffress will be Perry’s Jeremiah Wright."
Mark DeMoss, Romney’s evangelical adviser, would know better but he may be so outnumbered that he is worn down or his counsel is outvoted, even discredited, by the inner circle. DeMoss is now trying to play to the media stereotype. What can he do?
Privately, he surely told the Romney staff the truth. DeMoss would have said, “Look, the object is to get the nomination, not win points with the media.
“And as for any comfort to the Latter-Day Saints?" DeMoss would ask. "If they think this hurts, wait until the general election, when Romney faces the media’s beloved Obama. The journalists who champion the governor today will give his faith a baptism of fire. Remember Proposition 8? When LDS Churches were vandalized and the book of Mormon burned? Where was the ‘tolerant’ media then? You saw some hints of what the media will do in The New York Times last cycle.
“And don’t even think that this is a Jeremiah Wright moment," DeMoss would say. "In the first place, Rick Perry doesn’t go to the pastor's church. And in the second place, that church is First Baptist in Dallas, Texas. That’s the Vatican to the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the world. And 90 percent of those Southern Baptists live in 14 electoral southern states, the richest electoral region of the nation.
“Just look at the math. Just 2 percent of the country are LDS and 12.6 percent are African-American. And 48 percent of the nation claim to be born-again Christians,” DeMoss would add.
“It’s not that high,” Romney staffers would shoot back. “Our pollster says that only 26 percent of the population is evangelical.”
“But our pollsters are asking the wrong question,” DeMoss would try to point out.
“Asking someone if they are evangelical is like asking if they are phlegmatic. They may be, but you are going to get a skewed answer because some won’t know what you are talking about but won’t want to admit it. All they know is that they go to the Nazarene church or Hillsdale Community Church down the street. But if you ask them if they are ‘born again’ they will say yes.”
The eyes of the Romney staffers will glaze over.
Abraham Lincoln once said that if he could find a general who could do the math he could win the war. He was so frustrated. How can you argue with numbers? The North had the industry and the population. They would win if they would just fight.
In the political game, the born-again Christians have the numbers. It doesn’t pay to dis them. Ask President Colin Powell, who for years could win any general election match-up but not the GOP nomination because of one ill-advised attack on evangelicals in a Barbara Walters interview.
It took many losses for the patrician, Episcopalian Bush family to figure out the political math of the born-again numbers in this country. No matter how distasteful, you can’t win an election without them. But when the Bush family finally figured it out, they produced two governors and two presidents.
Romney’s fight with Jeffress shows that he and his staff haven’t yet gotten the math.
Doug Wead is a New York Times best-selling author and a former adviser to two American presidents. He is senior adviser to Ron Paul.
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