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To Romney strategist, questions on faith fair game

A panel discussion featured Republician advisers (left to right) Alex Castellanos, who is a top strategist for Mitt Romney; Rick Davis for John McCain; and Chris Henick for Rudolph Giuliani. (MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF)

CAMBRIDGE -- It's appropriate for the public to ask questions about Mitt Romney's Mormon faith as he pursues his presidential campaign, a top Romney campaign strategist said yesterday.

Strategist Alex Castellanos was speaking at a forum of Republican presidential advisers held at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He was asked why the media seemed to be celebrating the fact that the country may elect its first African-American or woman president, but treating the specter of its first Mormon president with suspicion.

"I think there's very little known about the governor's faith," Castellanos said at the forum, which also featured top advisers to Senator John McCain of Arizona and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. "It's just a question mark that folks are right to ask about."

The forum treated about 400 students, faculty, and guests to a peek inside three leading GOP presidential campaigns. The advisers, who also included Rick Davis for McCain and Chris Henick for Giuliani, were guarded and revealed little beyond conventional wisdom, but they offered some insights into how issues such as Iraq and the Internet are figuring in their strategies.

Castellanos fielded more questions about Romney's religion from students as the night wore on, including one who referred to the Mormon Church's former exclusion of blacks from its leadership as a "horrible history."

"Do you think he stands a chance with black voters?" the student asked.

"Let's put him down as undecided," Castellanos joked, before saying that both political parties could find racism in their pasts and that in America "things change."

"And as I understand it, the Mormon faith has changed, and that is not who they are," he said. "My advice for America would be to look at the kind of person he has been, the way he's conducted himself, the way he's dealt with others, and make your judgment on that."

On Iraq, all three advisers acknowledged that their candidates face some political risk in backing President Bush's decision earlier this year to send an additional 20,000 troops to secure Baghdad. Isn't it dangerous for the general election, asked moderator Mark Halperin of ABC news, to be backing such an unpopular war?

"Nothing's been dangerous so long as the American mission in Iraq succeeds," Henick said.

Davis said McCain knows the risks but still believes the war is a "transcendent" issue in the 2008 race. "I have a candidate who makes . . . statements like, 'I'd rather win a war than win the nomination,' " Davis said. "That kills me. I mean, my job is to win the nomination."

Davis also said any move to withdraw troops from Iraq would be corrosive to those on the ground. "Now do you want to be the last guy shot in Iraq?" he said.

At one point, Castellanos was asked how Romney, in today's security climate, could compete against candidates such as McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and Giuliani, who led New York following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In what seemed to be a subtle jab at Giuliani, Castellanos said America doesn't just need a policeman.

"Who's going to lead a stronger country into the future?" he said. "If this election is about that, I think Mitt Romney has a pretty good case to make."

Henick got in his own subtle criticism of Romney, saying that Republican voters will admire Giuliani for sticking to his positions on social issues such as abortion, even though they may not agree with him. (Romney once supported abortion rights, like Giuliani, but shifted to an antiabortion position in recent years.)