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In 2008, Will It Be Mormon in America?

From the June 6, 2005 issue: Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney ponders a presidential bid.

Jun 6, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 36 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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YOU REMEMBER, OR PERHAPS you don't, Sen. Orrin Hatch's 2000 presidential campaign. The senator talks about it in soft inflections, recalling this event and that debate. But especially he talks about what motivated him to run. Hatch, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, cites polling data from 1999 suggesting that 17 percent of Americans wouldn't vote for a Mormon for president under any circumstances. "One reason I ran was to knock down the prejudicial wall that exists" against Mormons, he says. "I wanted to make it easier for the next candidate of my faith."

That next candidate just might be Mitt Romney, the Republican governor of Massachusetts.

It may seem too early to be talking about 2008. But George W. Bush can't run again, and, in a break from the usual pattern, the vice president, Richard Cheney, probably won't be a candidate. So the field looks wide open. And Romney is among those being mentioned in the press and GOP circles for 2008. He'd be a legitimate candidate, regardless of who else might run.

But would his religion hurt him? Would he run into a prejudicial wall? Maybe, though there are reasons to think otherwise. The country could be looking at its first Mormon president--or, as Romney would prefer to put it, a president who happens to be a Mormon.

WILLARD MITT ROMNEY is a native of Michigan, the son of the late George Romney, CEO of American Motors, a three-term governor of Michigan in the 1960s, Nixon's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and, briefly in 1968, a presidential candidate. Mitt Romney went to Brigham Young University (he was valedictorian in the College of the Humanities) before collecting business and law degrees from Harvard. Staying in Boston, he worked for a consulting firm for three years, then founded a venture capital company. Romney acquired a reputation for fixing troubled companies, so it wasn't surprising that in 1990 his own company, which he'd left and which was sinking into debt, asked him to come back and save it.

But Romney's most remarkable intervention--the one that placed him on a national stage--came with the 2002 Winter Olympics held in Salt Lake City. In 1999 the event already was $379 million in debt, and there were allegations of bribery involving top officials. Romney was asked to head up the games. Under his leadership, they turned into a spectacular success, clearing a profit of $100 million. Romney himself contributed $1 million, and donated his three years of pay ($275,000 per annum) to charity.

"He was absolutely spectacular," says Rocky Anderson, the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City. "He was a strong leader, extremely competent. He walked into an utter disaster, and slashed spending without cutting corners on what was necessary to put on an absolutely extraordinary Olympics. . . . With his unique management skills we came out in the black--which no one ever dreamed."

The first public office Romney sought was a legislative one, in 1994, when he challenged Senator Ted Kennedy. Romney said he ran for the sake of the two-party system, and of course he lost, though the margin was, as Kennedy victories go, narrow at 58 to 41 percent. Given his executive personality, Romney would have been miscast as a senator, but he scored points with Republicans for taking one for the team in the nation's most Democratic state. Eight years later, right after the 2002 Winter Olympics concluded, Romney ran for governor and won by 50 to 45 percent, with third parties splitting the remainder.

As governor, Romney has scored another turnaround, conservative in both ends and means. Told during the campaign that he would inherit a deficit of between $500 million and $1.5 billion, Romney discovered upon taking office a $650 million deficit in fiscal 2003 and an anticipated one of $3 billion in fiscal 2004. Romney balanced the 2003 budget, and he finished 2004 with a $700 million surplus. A reviving economy helped, but Romney didn't tax or borrow, and he reduced spending through government consolidation and reform.

Romney hasn't been able to turn around the infamous decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirming same-sex marriage. But he sharply criticized the ruling when it was handed down, and he continues to push for a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Romney currently is in a fight with the statehouse over legislation he opposes that would authorize the cloning of human embryos for experimentation and research.

Romney is a youthful 58. He and his wife Ann met in high school in Michigan and have been married since 1969. They raised five boys, all now married, and have eight grandchildren. Romney gives a good speech. He can be genuinely funny, and at his own expense. He looks like someone who could be president of the United States. He is also ambitious.