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Mitt’s Muslim Problem

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A number of the best analysts I know are convinced that the Republican primary race has narrowed to two men: Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. I recently went back to one and asked if the declines that these two top-picks have suffered, and the gains of the dark horse candidates, Huckabee and McCain, make any difference. “No,” he insisted, but catching his breath for a moment, he added, “but either could still botch it with some amazing stupidity.”

Both have had a lot of bad press of late: the whole Kerik phenomenon has cast a cloud over Giuliani. The accusations against Mitt go to his consistently Machiavellian tactics. Most recently, push-polling calls were made in New Hampshire testing voters’ reactions to the candidate’s Mormon faith, and suspicions quickly mounted that the Romney campaign was behind this—using it to try to build backlash sympathy for their candidate.

Yesterday’s developments mark another dark moment for the former Massachusetts governor. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, a Fox reporter gave an account of an interview he had conducted with Romney:

I asked Mr. Romney whether he would consider including qualified Americans of the Islamic faith in his cabinet as advisers on national security matters, given his position that “jihadism” is the principal foreign policy threat facing America today. He answered, “…based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified. But of course, I would imagine that Muslims could serve at lower levels of my administration.”

The piece produced a storm of criticism very quickly, and Romney started backpedaling. At a campaign stop in Florida, he issued this “clarification:”

“No, that’s not what I said. His question was, Did I need to have a Muslim in my Cabinet in order to confront radical jihad, or would it be important to have a Muslim in my Cabinet?’ And I said no, I don’t think you need a Muslim in the Cabinet to take on radical jihad any more than we needed a Japanese American to understand the threat that was coming from Japan or something of that nature.”

Romney proceeded to attempt to spin the question as an issue of quotas, but not too many observers were buying. Greg Sargent at Talking Points Memo—a group which are, I think, quickly emerging as the web’s premier political fact checkers—quickly established that the Christian Science Monitor account was nothing new. In fact, Romney had made remarks along the same lines before. They quickly trot out an account of a statement he made in Nevada and a contemporaneous magazine account which validated it. It clearly wasn’t a quotas issue, and Romney’s response was plainly a negative.

Now a lot of observers consider Romney’s campaign to be the slickest, most professional show in town, with a candidate who is a veritable politician’s politician. It’s hard to identify the issue on which the former liberal Massachusetts governor now running as tough-man conservative from the heartland hasn’t completed a 180 degree turn.

My colleague Ken Silverstein did a Romney profile on the cover of the November issue which is still the best piece on the Romney make-over out there. If you haven’t read it, now’s the time. A good example of the make-over relates to the abortion issue, which used to be the ultimate test of character for the Republican Right (now, of course, it’s been overtaken by torture). When he ran against Teddy Kennedy for the Senate in 1994, Mitt Romney decided abortion was his issue. Mitt was the pro-Choice candidate.

During the 1994 campaign, Romney’s then (and current) political consultant Charles Manning described Kennedy as a political opportunist on abortion. “He was pro-life before Roe v. Wade and now he’s changed,” Manning said. “Mitt has always been consistent in his pro-choice position.”

That right. Romney was the tried-and-true defender of a woman’s right to choose. Kennedy was an unreliable flip-flopper who previously had taken a pro-life stance.

But another nugget from Ken’s article kept running through my mind as I read accounts of the current controversy. Ken quite properly took a view from South Carolina, which many G.O.P. strategists view as the make-or-break contest among the early primaries. In 2000, the South Carolina race had decided the G.O.P. nomination for Bush. It’s clear that South Carolina is up for grabs this year. In a Clemson University poll just out, Romney has the lead, with just 17% of the vote, Tennessean Fred Thompson follows at 15%, while Rudy Giuliani finishes dead last among the listed candidates. And what, exactly, are the big issues that always lurk right under the surface in South Carolina?

A common practice in state politics has been the exploitation of race and religion. “In both cases, it drew upon intense, visceral fears on the part of large numbers of white voters that they were facing a life and death struggle, first to maintain white supremacy and later to prevent the rise of a godless political culture,” says Dan Carter, a former professor of American history at the University of South Carolina.

Some are calling Mitt’s statement a gaffe. I don’t think so. This is the most cautious, most carefully planned performer on the Republican side of the stage. He leaves nothing to chance. This statement is a calculated attempt to play the race and religion card in the South Carolina primary. The late Lee Atwater, South Carolina’s greatest political strategist, would be proud of him. (I should however, note two things in favor of Mr. Atwater. One is that on his deathbed, he recanted the politics of hate and division and sought foregiveness from those he had offended. The other is that he introduced me to Maurice’s Piggy Park in Columbia, over on Lake Murray Boulevard, home of the best barbeque in the Carolinas.)

Moreover, Romney has everything to gain from a political flap in which he is viewed as the Christian and anti-Muslim candidate.

What are Romney’s vulnerabilities? In the words of an internal assessment prepared for the Romney campaign that the Boston Globe secured, he is likely to be viewed as “phony and opportunistic” because of his sudden and dramatic shift of position on a long series of social issues. But polling has shown that the core group of Republican primary voters are not terribly troubled by the charlatan like qualities of candidates—they seem to take a certain perverse pleasure in it.

Romney’s big potential vulnerability in the Bible Belt has consistently been his Mormon faith. For Protestant Fundamentalists, the Latter-Day Saints Church has been viewed as heretical. Indeed, even for mainstream Protestants, the Mormons can be accepted and treated as part of a broader community of the faithful, but are they Christians? I put that question to a prominent theologian at one of the nation’s best known Protestant seminaries on a recent visit. He said, “The ecumenical tradition focuses on the Nicene Creed as a test establishing the bounds of the Christian faith, and applying this test, the Mormons cannot be considered Christians.” That is the religion question that Romney is very concerned to avoid. I think he’s revealing a strategy for avoiding issues surrounding his own faith, which he recognizes can be very damaging to him, especially among the Republican primary voters in the Southeast.

On the substantive question that was put to Romney, there is another point worth observing. If we look at the entire senior team which has assembled around Bush from the time he entered Washington and had to pick one single individual whose performance has consistently been a credit to his administration, there’s really no question who that person would be. His name is Zalmay Khalilzad, he is now the U.N. ambassador, a position traditionally given cabinet rank. Khalilzad is a Muslim.

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