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By Jay Cost

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Romney Abandons "The Speech?"

I have spent a good deal of time on this blog discussing Mitt Romney's prospective "Mormon Speech." As we all read over the weekend - apparently, the speech is not in the works at the moment:

HOLDERNESS, N.H. (AP) -- Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney said Saturday his political advisers have warned him against giving a speech explaining his Mormon faith.

During a house party overlooking Squam Lake, Romney was asked by voters if he would give a speech outlining his religious beliefs and how those beliefs might impact his administration, much like then-Sen. John F. Kennedy did as he sought to explain his Catholic faith during the 1960 election.

"I'm happy to answer any questions people have about my faith and do so pretty regularly," the former Massachusetts governor said. "Is there going to be a special speech? Perhaps, at some point. I sort of like the idea myself. The political advisers tell me no, no, no -- it's not a good idea. It draws too much attention to that issue alone."

I would note first off that this comment does not square with what Bob Novak reported in October. This is what Novak had to say:

Although disagreement remains within the Romney camp, the consensus is that he must address the Mormon question with a speech deploring bias. According to campaign sources, a speech has been written, though 90 percent of it could still be changed. It is not yet determined exactly what he will say or at what point he will deliver a speech that could determine the political outcome of 2008.

So - two questions are on my mind.

(1) Why not give the speech?

The basic maxim of a political campaign is similar to the maxim of the private enterprise: increase one's vote share. If Romney is not going to give such a speech - we can infer that his advisers believe that the speech will not increase his share of the vote. Indeed, they might even believe that it will diminish it. To me, this makes intuitive sense. At this point - Romney seems to be doing well with evangelicals in certain regards. He has picked up some endorsements from the religious right. He also seems to be getting some traction in South Carolina - which is the first real test of his strength among Christian conservatives. The RCP trend line shows that he has been on an upswing since about Labor Day. So - there may be no need to give the speech. On top of that - giving the speech would only draw attention to the one major difference between Romney and Christian conservatives. If they are starting to support him, why do that?

In previous posts, I have spent a good bit of time talking about Romney's speech. Of course, my thoughts on its content were always predicated upon the assumption that he would give one. I have also argued that Romney might be fortunately positioned vis-à-vis the "Mormon issue" - and therefore might not have to deliver such a speech. An issue only becomes an issue in a campaign if the media or the opponents make it one. It has been my theory for a while that neither was going to make any hay out of Romney's Mormonism. That is just not the kind of thing that the media does. It seems illiberal and insensitive. Candidates might feel a little more inclined. However, such a strategy is risky. Any candidate would face a backlash for an anti-Mormon campaign, even one done "underground." Furthermore, Romney's particular opponents would all face greater difficulty in making an issue of his Mormonism, should they be so inclined. After all - Giuliani, Thompson, and McCain have four divorces between them. Bringing up the "Mormon issue" could bring up questions about one's fidelity to the particular faith that one proclaims, and therefore one's moral constitution. Why run the risk?

So - I think there is good reason not to give the speech.

(2) Why tell people he's not giving the speech because his political advisers think it's a bad idea?

I don't know - and I think that was a mistake. Political campaigns are a lot like Hollywood movies. For them to be effective, we have to be able to suspend disbelief, if only for a little bit. So, any time we see a boom mike in the shot, the intended effect is completely spoiled. And so it goes with political campaigns. They are completely artificial - but they are most effective when they seem natural, spontaneous, and "real." I think that Romney's answer to the question makes the artifice of his campaign too apparent. This comment made him seem far too calculating. Again - it is all a matter of appearances. We know what campaigns are really about. We know that they are rational, utility-maximizing organizations whose sole purpose is to get to half-plus-one. However, when the calculations are laid bare before us - we are turned off. So, it is never a good idea to make the voters privy to them. Political advisers should be neither seen nor heard (except for the purposes of "spin").

I doubt that this will have an effect on the primary contest. In fact, I am confident that it will not. But a candidate should strive not to be so loose. It is a good discipline to acquire in advance of the general election campaign. Come next year, you don't want your nominee justifying important decisions by the fact that his preferred course of action was voted down by his "political cabal" (or whatever phrase would find its way into the opposition's talking points). This is the sort of comment that could get a candidate in some trouble in October, 2008.

I also think Romney's comment might make it more difficult for him to give the speech - should his campaign change its mind. His advisers do not want him to because, presumably, they think he is up - and thus there is no problem for a speech to deal with. If he eventually gives the speech, won't that give the impression that they think he's now down - and that there is indeed a problem? That is what the media will focus on with its typical relentlessness. I can just imagine the frame it would use: Romney changes tactics because he's in trouble with the Christian right. This will diminish the effectiveness of the speech.

Generally, it is not a good idea to be this candid about campaign strategy.

-Jay Cost