Trying to save his presidential campaign from an Iowa swoon, Republican Mitt Romney on Thursday will take on the issue of his Mormon faith by stressing America's tradition of religious tolerance.
Romney is to make remarks at the presidential library of former President George H.W. Bush in College Station, Texas, not far up the road from Houston, where Democratic candidate John Kennedy in 1960 used a speech to ease concerns about his Catholic faith and went on to win the presidency.
Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, would be the United States' first Mormon president, although a number of followers of the religion hold elected U.S. positions, several of them in the Senate, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has an estimated 6 million members in the United States and is based on the belief that the religion's founder, Joseph Smith, found golden tablets in upstate New York left behind by ancient Israelites.
Some Americans view the Mormon faith with skepticism and the church has spent decades trying to counter criticism that it is a cult and a threat to Christianity.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans view the Mormon faith as a Christian religion, but one in four respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon president.
Romney's most immediate challenge is in Iowa, where the wide lead he once held has now faded, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee winning support from Christian evangelicals to catch Romney in the polls.
Iowa on January 3 holds the first of the state-by-state contests to determine which Republican and Democrat will face off in the November 2008 election. A win there can generate momentum, while a loss can deflate presidential hopes.
"The timing of this speech is a direct result of Huckabee's surge in Iowa and Romney's softening numbers," said a veteran Republican strategist in Washington. "The target is social conservatives in Iowa and South Carolina and being 'acceptable' to them."
Romney decided on his own to give a speech with the title of "Faith in America."
"This speech is an opportunity for Governor Romney to share his views on religious liberty, the grand tradition religious tolerance has played in the progress of our nation and how the governor's own faith would inform his presidency if he were elected," said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden.
Or, as Romney told CBS News: "I'm not running for pastor-in-chief. I'm running for commander-in-chief."
Experts doubt Romney will talk much about the specifics of his religion.
"The question about Governor Romney's candidacy is not a question about what it means to be a Mormon. The question is about what it means to be president of the United States and respect religion without allowing religion to dictate decisions in the Oval Office," said Welton Gaddy, a Baptist preacher who heads the Interfaith Alliance.
Nancy Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University, said it is a speech Romney had to give.
Americans need to be reassured that "he really does believe in the separation of church and state and that he does come into the political arena as someone who should be judged on his policies and his record," she said.
Barry Lynn, executive director of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said Romney's speech is another chapter in a U.S. presidential campaign where religion has played a big role.
Huckabee has talked about being a Baptist preacher, Republican Fred Thompson was quizzed on how often he goes to church, and Democrat John Edwards was asked about his biggest sin.
"Frankly this whole election cycle is turning into some kind of theological beauty pageant instead of an electoral campaign for the presidency," he said.