ABC News’ Z. Byron Wolf, Christine Byun, Kevin Chupka and Bret Hovell Report: Religion takes center stage on Thursday in the race for the Republican presidential nomination as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney makes an address on faith in Texas.
Romney, R-Mass., the only Mormon in the race, won’t discuss the specifics of his religion but will instead focus on the role of faith in politics.
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., seemingly the libertarian conscience of the Republican party this election season, defended his GOP rival.
"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. Gov. Romney should be judged fairly, on his record and his character, not on the church he attends," said Paul in a written statement.
Paul said he came "to my faith through Jesus Christ and have accepted him as my personal savior," but questions whether religious groups should carry so much sway in the party and explained why his own Christianity has not been on display in his campaign.
"We live in times of great uncertainty when men of faith must stand up for American values and traditions before they are washed away in a sea of fear and relativism. I have never been one who is particularly comfortable talking about my faith in the political arena, and I find the pandering that typically occurs in the election season to be distasteful."
Paul has not always been so standoffish about how religion in the public discourse, especially where it comes to political correctness.
In a 2003 Christmas-themed op-ed entitled "The War on Religion", he complained that the "once commonplace refrain of "Merry Christmas" has been replaced by the vague, ubiquitous "Happy Holidays."
Later in that op-ed he argued that church should actually be more important in the lives of Americans than the state.
Read more on Romney’s big speech and all the day’s politics every day in The Note.
Republican candidate former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., declined to talk about the address during an interview with an Iowa radio station Thursday, saying he would "hate to punt" without hearing the speech for himself, but said he was "tivo-ing" the speech.
Instead, Thompson talked about his own faith which he stated "has to do with everything I do and everything I hope to be."
"Our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence remind us our basic liberties come from God, not from government," he said, "and I look at the things that the Founding Fathers relied upon as they were writing the Constitution. There’s total consistency there with our form of government and the things we believe in and the things I believe in personally."
In an interview on NBC’s "Today" show before the speech, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., was asked whether he thought Romney’s Mormonism would have any impact on whether or not he would make a good president.
"None whatsoever" Huckabee answered, "I think it’s a matter of what his views are, whether they’re consistent, whether they’re authentic, just like mine are." He added "It has nothing to do with what faith a person has. It’s whether or not that person’s life is consistent with how he lives it."
On his campaign bus Thursday night, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggested former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s, R-Ark., rise in the polls in Iowa led Romney to make the speech before the Iowa caucuses.
"He knows there’s a strong voting bloc in Iowa that call themselves ‘Christian conservatives,’" McCain said. "He’s always been trying to appeal to them. I saw some of his mailers, stuff out there. I think that Huckabee’s rise in the polls is clearly an impact on a lot of people’s strategic thinking."
"I think he made a statement that people are going to ask him about it, that you can’t have freedom without religion," McCain said. "Well, I can understand the point that might be made that it’s part of fundamental Judeo-Christian values. But I did know people in prison [as a POW in Vietnam] … who were atheists and they were patriots and served the country and they did so with distinction."