WASHINGTON -- Trying to revive evangelical support for his presidential candidacy, Mitt Romney linked questions about his Mormon faith yesterday to fears about President John F. Kennedy's Catholicism but refused to answer specific criticism of his religion.
A speech by Romney, heavily promoted by his campaign, was only the latest indication of the influential role that religion is playing in the 2008 presidential contest.
Both parties are wooing religious voters - a pivotal group in the 2004 election - and issues linked to religion have marked the campaign, from the intense debate over how to respond to Islamic fundamentalism to rumors about the Muslim background of Democratic contender Sen. Barack Obama.
No candidate has been more directly affected than Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who would become the first Mormon elected president. For more than a year, supporters and advisers have urged him to address questions about his religion, but only recently - after his candidacy hit a rough patch - did he agree.
"Politically, it was probably as effective as he could make it," said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "He really should have given the speech six months ago. Now he's in a defensive situation."
Both nationally and in the key early state of Iowa, Romney has been hurt by his religion. More than one in three Republican evangelical voters say they would be less likely to cast their ballot for a Mormon, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
In Iowa, where evangelical voters are a particularly powerful Republican force, Romney has fallen behind Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, according to the latest Des Moines Register opinion survey.
Romney, in his speech before several hundred supporters at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, drew a direct link to another Massachusetts politician, Kennedy, who overcame anti-Catholic bigotry in 1960 to become the first member of his faith elected to the nation's highest office.
"Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion," said Romney, exactly four weeks before the kickoff caucuses in Iowa, where his heavy investment of time and money is suddenly in jeopardy.
For the most part, Romney's speech bore little resemblance to Kennedy's famous address, which sought to minimize the importance of religion in politics while at the same time tackling questions about his Catholicism.
Kennedy, in far briefer remarks before a potentially hostile audience of southern Baptist ministers, mentioned God only once (when quoting the presidential oath of office) and used the word Catholic 20 times. Romney, by contrast, used the word Mormon once and God 15 times.
Kennedy's remarks, made after he won the Democratic nomination, were designed to rebut the notion that his loyalty would be to the pope rather than the American people. Romney, like Kennedy, spoke of religious tolerance but his speech also reflected the religiosity of today's politics.
Romney's nomination strategy relies heavily on winning Iowa and New Hampshire next month, and evangelical voters could be crucial to the outcome in Iowa. His efforts to appeal to evangelicals have won support of some prominent evangelical Christians, including Bob Jones III, chancellor of the Christian fundamentalist college and seminary in South Carolina named for his family.
Nationally, more than one in five voters are white Protestant evangelicals, a figure that is considerably higher in Republican primaries. In the GOP caucuses in Iowa, evangelicals are expected to cast two of every five votes.
"Religion is the prism through which Republicans nominate their candidates for president," said Boston College's Wolfe. Romney's speech sounded as though "it was being delivered by an evangelical. He hit every theme that evangelicals want to hear."
Among those themes: the image of America as a deeply religious nation, in sharp contrast to Europe's increasing secularism; the importance of displaying religious symbols, such as nativity scenes, in the public square - while at the same time prohibiting the state from interfering with the free practice of religion.
Romney offered praise for other religions, including a nod to "the approachability of God in the prayers of the evangelicals [and] the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals."
In his only reference to Mormonism, he pledged to "be true" to his faith.
"Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy," he said. "If they're right, so be it."
Addressing what he said was a question he's often asked, Romney expressed his belief "that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind."
"My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths," he said. "These are not bases for criticism, but rather a test of our tolerance."
Recent interviews with voters In Iowa confirmed what Romney's campaign has found, there and elsewhere: that anti-Mormon bias poses a significant threat to his nomination chances.
But Romney chose not to confront directly his anti-Mormon critics, including those who consider his religion a cult or raise doubts about the degree to which he and other adherents of the Mormon faith, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are Christians.
In closing the door to any discussion of "distinctive [religious] doctrines," Romney said that to do otherwise would amount to an unconstitutional religious test.
"No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith, for if he becomes president, he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths," he said, to applause from supporters.
In light of polling that shows strong anti-Mormon bias in the country, Romney's move to foreclose an in-depth discussion of Mormon theology "might have been a wise decision," said political scientist John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Instead, he noted, Romney attempted to argue "that Mormons have the same values as other religious groups in the United States."
Romney's speech and the importance his campaign placed on it "does reflect the fact that religion is a very important factor in voter behavior," said Green. But it is quite possible that even many religious voters will ultimately make their presidential choice this year "based not on their faith but on other things."
The significance of religion in the campaign is also reflected in stepped-up efforts by Democrats to woo regular churchgoers.
Christian conservatives claim that they played a decisive role in the 2004 presidential contest, and the losing Democratic nominee, John F. Kerry, has said he regretted not talking more publicly about his Catholic faith during that campaign.
"There's been a huge sea change on the Democratic side," said Mark Rozell, a George Mason University political scientist. "Previously, most Democratic candidates, I think because of their belief in pluralism, somehow found it unseemly to wear their religion out in the open."
Some '08 Democratic contenders have spoken openly about their Christian faith, including Obama, who has urged his party to seek the votes of evangelicals - in the process making the same arguments about religion's role in the founding of America that Romney and Kennedy made.
Obama, a member of the United Church of Christ whose grandfather and stepfather were Muslim, has also had to rebut whispers that he's a Muslim or that he'd take the oath of office on a Quran, as Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the only Muslim member of Congress, did this year.