By CHARLES DUNN
The Providence Journal
In 1960, the junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, surprised political pundits by breaking through the anti-Catholic barrier and winning the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination against the opposition of two long-powerful senators, Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson.
Today’s political pundits discount the chances of a Mormon former governor from Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, in his battle against two better-known candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. John McCain and “America’s mayor,” Rudolph Giuliani.
Will history repeat itself? Can Romney do for Mormons what Kennedy did for Catholics? To do so, Romney must negate America’s anti-Mormon prejudice, especially among evangelical Christians. Some parallels suggest that he could.
First, their fathers’ records in business and politics paved the way for their successes.
As a self-made multimillionaire in business and a prominent supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, achieved America’s most coveted diplomatic post, ambassador to the Court of St. James (Britain). In like manner, Romney’s father, George Romney, rescued American Motors Co. from insolvency and won the governorship of Michigan. And for a short time in 1968, he was the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
Second, the Kennedy family raised millions of dollars to build one of America ‘s best-oiled presidential campaigns. As a successful venture capitalist with close ties to Mormon financial interests, Romney has raised millions of dollars for his campaign.
The third parallel is that just as the Kennedy family became a centerpiece of his campaign, so it is with Romney. Like Jacqueline Kennedy, Ann Romney exudes grace and excellent speaking ability. Her storybook romance with Mitt, beginning at age 16, has blossomed into a family of five grown sons and 12 grandchildren, which carries special weight among family-oriented evangelical Christians.
Fourth, while telling the Kennedy legacy hardly ever ends without referring to the famous touch-football games, so the Romney story features his vital role as the savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics, which floundered on the brink of bankruptcy and scandal until he took charge.
Charisma is the fifth parallel between the two men.
Like Kennedy, Romney combines a charismatic personality with excellent educational credentials and superb speaking ability. He graduated summa cum laude from Brigham Young University and earned two degrees from Harvard University, in business and law.
The sixth parallel is related to geography.
Born in Michigan, Romney has Midwestern ties, which should help him in Iowa. As former governor of Massachusetts, he should have a natural appeal in next-door-neighbor New Hampshire, scene of the nation’s first presidential primary. And in South Carolina, his traditional family values and economic conservatism should play well.
If Romney wins or does well in these early caucus and primary states, which have small Mormon populations, he will have followed in Kennedy’s footsteps. The latter won an early and unexpected victory over Humphrey in Protestant West Virginia.
Romney has won in Massachusetts, where Republicans usually lose. In 1994, he gave Ted Kennedy his closest of nine Senate races. Then in 2002, he won the governorship. Romney balanced the budget and created an enviable statewide health-insurance program.
Lastly, in 1960 an MIT political scientist, Ithiel de Sola Poole, advised Kennedy to address the anti-Catholic issue head-on, which he did at the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference in Houston. Following the Kennedy script that the best defense is a good offense, Romney has already won over many evangelical Christians in one-on-one and small-group settings, and now he plans to address the Mormon issue before large gatherings of evangelical Christians.
In 1960, Democrats needed a winner, and Catholics wanted to break the anti-Catholic barrier. In 2008, Republicans need a winner, and Mormons want to break the anti-Mormon barrier. History could repeat itself.
(Charles W. Dunn is dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.)