In arguably the most important speech of his campaign, Republican presidential candidate former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass., sought to address voters' skepticism about his Mormon faith Thursday in College Station, Texas.
"If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest. A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States," Romney said a crowd of 400 to 500 people at the George H.W. Bush Library at Texas A&M University.
'I Believe in My Mormon Faith'
With some voters suggesting they have qualms about a Mormon president, Romney said he shares "moral convictions" with Americans of all faiths.
"I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it," Romney said. "My faith is the faith of my fathers. I will be true to them and to my beliefs."
Nonetheless, he said his faith doesn't define his candidacy.
"A person should not be elected because of his faith, nor should he be rejected because of his faith." Romney said.
"Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin," Romney said.
Romney Invokes Founding Fathers
He decried those who would remove from public life "any acknowledgment of God," and he said that "during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places."
Romney took a hard line on questions about the doctrines of his religion, stating, "There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution."
For the Romney-friendly audience, the most enthusiastic response came when Romney praised the founding fathers: "And so together they prayed, and together they fought, and together, by the grace of God they founded this great nation."
Romney: 'No Candidate Should Become a Spokesman for His Faith'
While Romney had underscored that he's "not gonna be giving a JFK speech," some of the speech seemed to echo the sentiment laid down by President Kennedy, and Presidents Lincoln and Jefferson before him.
"When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God," Romney said.
As he has done many times before on the stump, Romney reiterated that "no candidate should become a spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths."
Notably, Romney stated today that his "church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths."
While not contradictory, Romney has previously focused on his claim that religions in American flow from the same "Judeo-Christian" tradition, rather than cite the differences of his church.
Some criticized Romney for trying to tie his Mormon religion too closely to that of evangelicals and other Christians.
Romney also sought to emphasize the "nation's symphony of faith," and assured "any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me."
Rivals React to Romney Speech
Some of Romney's political rivals reacted to Romney's decision to address his Mormon faith. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., a Republican candidate, argued Romney's faith shouldn't be an issue.
"The recent attacks and insinuations, both direct and subtle, that Gov. Romney may be less fit to serve as president of our United States because of his faith fly in the face of everything America stands for," Paul said in a statement Thursday. "Gov. Romney should be judged fairly, on his record and his character, not on the church he attends."
GOP candidate former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., has said he would wait to hear the speech before reacting.
However his South Carolina state campaign co-chair, Cyndi Mosteller said the speech won't answer questions about the tenets of Mormonism that are "very unusual to the point that it's almost unbelievable."
She cited in particular "the Church's history, and almost theology, on the issue of race -- particularly the black race."
Romney's Reasons for 'Faith in America'
Less than a month ago, Romney brushed off questions of giving a speech on his religion. At a campaign stop in Laconia, N.H., Romney said, "There's really not a need to [give a speech] right now."
Romney argued that "we're doing real well in the states that we talk to," referencing the much-visited early primary or caucus states, "and the people … they don't care about a religion issue."
At that point, Romney enjoyed a significant lead in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Romney's inspiration for the speech likely comes from a number of different sources. As he said Monday, "I've gotten a lot of unsolicited advice from folks from time to time."
In speaking on his religion, Romney frequently cites Lincoln's "Lyceum Speech," which references the basis of the United States' "political religion."
"As the patriots of '76 did to the support of the Declaration of Independence," Lincoln said, "so to the support of the Constitution and laws, let every American pledge his life, his property and his sacred honor."
Romney has also mentioned on the campaign trail that he had recently re-read Jon Meacham's book "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation."
Romney's family played a large role in his decision to give the speech. Romney said he "talked to [his] family over … the whole campaign about when would I give speech that relates to faith in America."
Romney's campaign has claimed for months that if he was going to give a speech, he likely wouldn't do so until after the primaries should he gain the nomination.
While the campaign vehemently denies there is any connection, the most significant change in the Republican field in the last two weeks is certainly the rise of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Iowa, where a recent ABC News poll showed Huckabee tied for first with Romney.
Huckabee, a Baptist minister, also recently released a new television ad in Iowa touting himself as a "Christian leader," putting the issue of religion front and center in the earliest of the early states.
In a subtle jab, Romney said Monday that, "I think that a candidate or a president that tried to make his religion a defining a feature of his campaign or of his term in office would tend to divide the nation rather than bring us together."
Whether related or not, the speech certainly comes at the moment Romney has clearly lost momentum in Iowa, failing to capture supporters after Sen. Sam Brownback's departure from the race and draw those conservative voters disappointed in former Sen. Fred Thompson's campaign.
Faith on the '08 Trail
Much has been made of Romney's Mormon religion throughout the campaign. While reporters covered the topic extensively, his faith was also frequently questioned on the campaign trail.
Before his presidential campaign even officially began, Romney told ABC News' Terry Moran in January that he thought "the American people respect individuals of faith," and that "when you take the oath of office, your highest responsibility is to follow the Constitution and the rule of law."
Soon after, a February ABC News/Washington Post poll found that a third of Americans were less likely to vote for a candidate who was Mormon.
When Romney surprised the Republican field by posting a whopping $20.1 million in first-quarter fundraising, many noted that Romney's second-highest fundraising state was Mormon-dominated Utah.
It's also been reported that Romney's top fundraising zip code is 84604 — Provo, Utah, the home of the most notable Mormon school, Brigham Young University.
Despite Romney's rising to lead in the Iowa polls by early August, the question of "the speech" remained. Romney told The Associated Press in July that it was "more likely than not" that he would give a speech at some point.
On Nov. 10, Romney was speaking at a house party in Holderness, N.H., when he admitted that he "liked the idea" of giving a "special speech" on his religion, but that "the political advisers tell me, 'No, no, no, its not a good idea — draws too much attention to that issue alone.' But I sorta like the idea anyway, and will probably do it at some point."
Romney tried to downplay his comments, even going so far as to say, "there's no news on this," but speculation continued.
Though his faith remains a serious topic for Romney, and a serious issue for some Republican voters, Romney has also made a point of making light of the prejudice against the Mormon faith throughout his campaign.
While speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington in October, Romney asked why the Mormon religion "scares people so badly." Romney quipped, "I'm probably the wrong guy to ask. But my neighbors might know."
One of the stigmas attached to the Mormon religion is the practice of polygamy, which the church forbade in 1890. At a campaign stop in Laconia, N.H., last month, Romney was speaking on the importance of his family when he said, "I love my wife and my five sons and their five wives."
Romney stopped, and smirking, added, "Wait a second. Let me clarify that. They each have one."