How Romney Played Among (a Few of) the Iowa Faithful
Chancey and Bud Montang are a couple without a candidate.
Bud, a financial analyst, and Chancey, who worked in advertising before she quit to home school the couple's four children several years ago, had been some of the leading backers in Ames of Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who recently dropped of the race after struggling to raise money or move in the polls.
When they agreed to watch former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's faith speech with a reporter this morning, both said even before it started they were unlikely to back Romney, not because of his Mormonism, but because of their concerns about his previous support for abortion rights. He not only didn't win either of them with his speech, but didn't seem to move them any closer to his side.
The Montangs, who are both heavily involved in their Catholic church here, kept pointing to what they saw as a contradiction in Romney's speech; in their minds, he was saying his faith was important, but at the same time it won't impact his decisions.
"If his faith is truly in the fiber of his being, every decision he makes is affected by it," Bud Montang said. "You can't say your faith isn't going to affect your decisions. It is who you are completely."
As Romney said he would not "jettison" his religion, but also not take guidance from Mormon leaders either, Chancey Montang grew frustrated.
"You can't have it separate and together," she said, "it's one or the other."
Brownback had courted and worked with the couple for months, and both repeatedly referred to "Sam," a convert to Catholicism who spoke frequently of how his faith motivated him to get involved on some issues.
"If Sam had been elected," Bud Montang said, "I would not want the Pope to have undue influence, but at the same time, [the Pope's word] has to have some impact."
Brownback himself endorsed John McCain when he left the race and has encouraged his supporters to do the same. But many of his top organizers endorsed former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee on Tuesday, and the Montangs said they are considering McCain, Huckabee and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson.
All the campaigns are eager to capture the former Brownback supporters, who are quite active in the circles of both conservative Christians and home school groups in the state. But Romney seems unlikely to convert this pair.
Dan Bartlett, a former top aide to President Bush, said earlier this year that while voters would say they didn't back Romney because of his previous support of abortion rights, they would really be opposing him because of his Mormon faith. Bud Montang said he didn't know much about Mormonism, but repeatedly said he could vote for a Mormon candidate, just not Romney.
In Iowa, where Huckabee is essentially tied in the polls with Romney on the strength of conservative evangelical Christians, the Romney campaign did not hold any special public events to get undecided voters to watch the speech and possibly shift toward their candidate. Romney's aides here argue that they are building a wider coalition of Republicans than Huckabee that can win the caucus for Romney.
But in interviews before the speech, they said the reception of Romney's words would be important because Iowa voters are also keen watchers of the national scene and will want to back someone who has a chance of winning nationally. If Romney's faith is seen as a barrier, then it's important to address it.
"Even for people who say it's not an issue for me, there's a question of whether it will affect viability," said Gentry Collins, Romney's Iowa state director.
While national Christian conservative activists have so far spoken positively of the speech, its timing, on a Thursday morning, prevented many social conservatives here from watching it. And the views of conservative leaders is not likely to be much guide to how the speech is viewed by undecided Christian conservaties here, who have shown little desire to follow the views of previously powerful voices in the Christianity evangelical community.
Asked about Pat Robertson's endorsement of Rudy Guiliani, another home school parent who had backed Brownback but is undecided, Katerie Sevde, called Robertson "outdated."
"My parents are big Pat Robertson supporters, but I feel he should stayed on the 700 Club and kept quiet or retired a long time ago," Sevde said.
--Perry Bacon Jr.
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