FOR MITT ROMNEY, religion is a potential third rail. For the rest of the pack, it's a stairway to political heaven.
Romney's Mormon faith is endlessly analyzed as a political obstacle. Yet, John McCain's campaign can't wait to e-mail a recent Christian Science Monitor article that rhapsodizes over the Arizona senator's "deep faith in God."
The former governor of Arkansas gets a cutesy Newsweek headline - "The Gospel According to Mike Huckabee " - and no tough questions about how his other career as an ordained Baptist minister might affect his thinking in the Oval Office.
Meanwhile, Romney's flattering Newsweek cover shot is undercut by a politically charged headline: "A Mormon's Journey." The report begins with the candidate awkwardly dodging questions about his religion. It also points out that only 45 percent of registered Iowa Republicans say America "is ready for a Mormon president."
The Democrats can't get enough religion.
Barack Obama wins praise in the Christian Post for "pulling all the strings in his effort to appeal to religious voters," in an article that refers to an upcoming concert series featuring the presidential candidate and top Gospel artists. Imagine if Romney planned a similar campaign event with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Hillary Clinton is more than pleased to discuss faith in connection with policy. John Edwards talks about his personal faith journey.
But, when faith comes up, Romney is cautious, and with good reason. The former Massachusetts governor is constantly exhorted to give a JFK-like speech, promising that religion will not influence his politics.
The media drumbeat over whether a Mormon can win the presidency hands a megaphone to one specific voter bloc - Christian conservatives who are most at odds with Mormons.
Their narrow thinking is exemplified by a prominent Dallas minister who recently told his congregation that if they wanted to elect a Christian to the White House, Romney didn't qualify.
"Even though he talks about Jesus as his Lord and savior, he is not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. Mormonism is a cult, " Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, said in a Sept. 30 sermon.
But, why should one religion's bigotry toward another be allowed to dominate the 2008 presidential contest?
Initially, Romney used jokes to offset negative impressions, mostly connected with the Mormon practice of polygamy, which was banned 100 years ago.
"I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman . . . and a woman . . . and a woman," he said, at a St. Patrick's Day breakfast in Boston. Now, as polling shows continued resistance to a Mormon candidate, Romney isn't joking; he's seriously courting the Christian right.
He happily accepted an endorsement from Bob Jones III, chancellor of the fundamentalist Christian Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., despite the school's history of anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon teaching. The Romney campaign touted the endorsement as a sign of "growing support in South Carolina and among Evangelical Christians." It is also a sign of how far Romney will go to neutralize doubts about his religion.
As governor, there's no public evidence Romney allowed his faith to interfere with his politics. The most commonly cited example is the law he signed allowing the sale of alcohol on Sunday, even though Mormons are prohibited from drinking.
In this campaign, challenge Romney's political commitment, not his religious commitment. Question his core, not his religious soul. A willingness to say absolutely whatever it takes to win is Romney's true weakness, not his faith.
As far as giving a speech, it would be hard to top the one John F. Kennedy gave on Sept. 12, 1960, to the Greater Houston Ministerial Council.
"While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that I believe that we have far more critical issues, " the candidate began. "The spread of Communist influence. . . . The humiliating treatment of our president and vice president by those who no longer respect our power. . . . The hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor's bills, the families forced to give up their farms, an America with too many slums, with too few schools. . . . These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues, for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barrier."
There's something really sinful about letting religion get in the way of real campaign issues, in 1960 or today.
Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is email@example.com.