ABC News’ Matt Stuart Reports: Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney distanced his much anticipated speech on his Mormon religion from President Kennedy’s now iconic 1960 speech while speaking in Manchester, N.H. Monday.
Asked by an audience member why he was giving the speech, Romney said, "Well, actually, and I’m glad you raised it because I think JFK really did give the definitive speech on politics and religion."
Romney emphasized that this would not be "a repeat or an update" of Kennedy’s speech, that in fact Romney’s concern was that "faith has disappeared in many respects from the public square. I want to make sure we maintain our religious heritage in this country."
Speaking with reporters after the event, Romney continued to emphasize how his speech would differ from JFK’s. "He gave the definitive speech on … discrimination and religion relating to a political campaign," Romney said, "I am gonna be talking about the role of religion, faith in America and in a free society."
Romney took the opportunity to jab at fellow Republican hopeful Gov. Mike Huckabee, saying "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."
Huckabee recently unveiled a television advertisement in which he calls himself a "Christian Leader," directly referencing his role as a Baptist minister.
Romney did admit his religion will be addressed to some extent. "I certainly will answer some questions relating to how my own faith would inform my presidency."
During his event for the Rotary Club in Manchester, Romney emphasized the economy and families but avoided larger social issues and made no mention of his religion.
Romney wrote a draft of the speech at the Hilton in Boca Raton, Florida last Thursday following the CNN/YouTube/Republican Party of Florida debate.
The campaign asserts that the decision to make the speech was Romney’s alone. Romney has recently seen his lead in Iowa cut down to a dead heat with Huckabee. The campaign claims that the poll numbers did not influence their decision.
When asked about his religion previously, Romney often cited President Lincoln’s so-called "Lyceum Speech" in which he addressed America’s "political religion" and an adherence to the Constitution that he saw as the dominant driving force in American politics.
Over the weekend, Romney held a casual lunch with reporters in which he mentioned that he was rereading Jon Meacham’s book, "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation."
Campaign aides have themselves admitted, however, that the speech could backfire.
ABC’s Jake Tapper notes that while the Houston, Texas speech has become the iconic moment of President Kennedy’s run, it was just one of many attempts to explain the role of religion in his life.
Romney has faced questions on his Mormon religion since before his campaign officially began. In January, Romney told ABC News’ Terry Moran that "I think the American people respect individuals of faith. That’s the kind of person they want to lead the country."
Romney’s campaign announced Sunday night that they would be delivering "the speech" on Thursday at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas.