Romney flies in to save Republican convention

Presidential candidate joins party in Tampa to salvage convention; spotlight turned on Mormon-Jewish connection.

Mitt Romney on screen (R370) (photo credit:  	 REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
Mitt Romney on screen (R370)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
TAMPA, Florida – At least one Republican National Convention participant waited until Tuesday to arrive in the Sunshine State – Mitt Romney, who was expected to make an unscheduled appearance Tuesday night to coincide with a speech by his wife, Ann.
As storms battered the coast of Florida and surrounding states, forcing the cancellation of the convention’s opening night on Monday, Romney touched down two days ahead of schedule to add an early bright note to a Republican gathering that will culminate in his acceptance of the party’s presidential nomination on Thursday night.
Campaign officials hadn’t confirmed his appearance Tuesday night by press time.
Ann Romney is expected to try to put a more human face on her husband by focusing on the successes in his biography as a leader of business and father to five sons. Rising Republican star Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, and Rick Santorum, who had been Romney’s top challenger for the nomination during the primaries, were also slated to speak in a schedule that was scrambled to accommodate some of Monday’s canceled appearances.
Ahead of the main event Tuesday night, groups including the American Jewish Committee and American Israel Public Affairs Committee held sessions emphasizing issues of key concern for Jewish and pro-Israel voters.
The AJC turned the spotlight on relations between Mormons and Jews. Romney’s Mormon faith has been a recurrent topic throughout the campaign. He will be the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major party, a milestone in American history though not one his campaign has sought to emphasize.
Romney has deflected attention from his faith, which has been an obstacle for some Evangelical Christian voters.
Many chose to support Santorum, a Catholic, in the GOP primary contest.
“There was some blowback in the primaries,” Abraham Peck, director of Catholic-Jewish studies at St. Leo University, said of the attitude toward a Mormon candidate among certain Evangelicals.
But Peck, speaking at the AJC event, said the communities were now working together on “specific issue coalitions” around points of mutual concern.
AJC legislative director Richard Foltin, who moderated Tuesday’s event, suggested that there were also areas of consonance between Mormons and Jews.
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He pointed to issues of church and state, immigration reform and assistance to those in need.
Yet for all the points of agreement, the relationship between the two faith communities has been hurt by divisive issues, most significantly the practice of some Mormons who have conducted posthumous baptisms of Jews, including Holocaust victims.
“I agree that it is an offensive thing,” said Gregory Smith, a Mormon who works in AIPAC’s Washington office and also spoke at the AJC event.
But he noted, as did Peck, that it goes against the instructions of the church leadership, which has publicly renounced the practice even as some individual members of the faith continue to conduct such baptisms furtively.
“The church goes to great lengths to stop it and make sure it isn’t done,” Smith said.
He declined to weigh in on the call from Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Holocaust survivor, for Romney to publicly speak on the issue.
Smith emphasized similarities between the Jewish and Mormon communities, including their roughly equal population size in the US as well as globally, and the struggles the two minority faiths have faced in the form of ostracism and even violence at the hands of those who haven’t accepted them.
Smith suggested that there was a great opportunity for the two communities to work with each other and learn from one another, and he compared the achievement of Romney’s expected GOP nomination with that of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who was chosen in 2000 as the running mate for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore.
“I think you see that same exact feeling within the Mormon community,” Smith explained. “We’re very proud that there’s a Mormon on the ticket.”
He added that the implications were broader than mere Mormon participation in the political system.
“It almost makes you feel normal, because people have made you feel not normal for such a long time,” he said. “It makes me feel that the American electorate at large is more accepting of my faith.”