Via Mark Halperin, I see that Mitt Romney has decided to give the "religion speech" after all--looks like it's going to happen this Thursday in Texas (not in front of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in case you were wondering). My immediate thought: Bad idea. My sense is that a lot of people in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina only have the vaguest notion, if any, that Romney may not be a standard-issue protestant Christian. Devoting a high-profile speech to the subject only draws attention to his differences at a time when he wants to be downplaying them. That's true even if he speaks about faith in the broadest, most general terms, with little mention of Mormonism per se. The press will fill in the gaps.

And, if he goes the alternate route and tries to educate the public about his religion, that may be even worse. As Amy Sullivan* wrote in The Washington Monthly a few years back, Mormonism is one of the few contemporary religions that tends to make people more, not less, uneasy the more they hear about it. (I don't think the founding myths of Mormonism are any less believable than the founding myths of any other religion, but for a variety of reasons--most importantly, their relatively recent vintage--they sound more outlandish. There are also various rites and rituals that wouldn't sound so exotic had they been part of mainstream religious culture for thousands of years, but which will definitely raise eyebrows if abruptly introduced into the cultural conversation today.)

I think the Romney people have been spooked by Huckabee's rise in Iowa. They're right to be spooked, but this strikes me as the wrong response. It looks like an attempt to stanch Romney's bleeding among evangelicals. But the evangelicals who've deserted Romney for Huckabee (and those thinking about doing the same) probably aren't going to be won over on religious grounds--Huckabee's appeal is too strong given his background, even if Romney weren't a Mormon. I think you have to make the case on ideological grounds (taxes, immigration, etc.), though that poses all sorts of problems, too.

*Amy is my longtime girlfriend.

Update: Just to put the above into some macro context, I do think it's possible that the GOP nomination race comes down to Huckabee v. Romney, contra the scenarios being spun out by the Giuliani camp. If Huckabee wins Iowa, I don't think he's going to then fade away quietly, as the Giuliani people suggest. It'll be a huge story, and will propel him through South Carolina at the very least. Likewise, I don't think Romney is by any means mortally wounded if he loses in Iowa. A close second behind Huckabee probably still leaves Romney as the (slight) favorite going into New Hampshire, given where he polls there at the moment. (Though maybe today's Union-Leader McCain endorsement scrambles the calculus a bit.)

Also worth mentioning: If the GOP nomination fight comes down to Huckabee and Romney, we'll have the purest possible test of who controls the GOP--elites or the grassroots. I still say elites (I wrote about this several months ago), which leads me to believe Romney would win. But who knows? It's a political scientist's fantasy.

--Noam Scheiber