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To understand Romney, you must understand his mission

  • Story Highlights
  • Romney served 2˝ years as a Mormon missionary in France
  • Fellow missionaries say Romney was one of the most successful in the group
  • Romney: Particular faith not an issue "so much as whether we share values."
  • Romney's campaign debating whether he should address his faith in a speech
  • Next Article in Politics »
From Gary Tuchman
CNN
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DEARBORN, Michigan (CNN) -- To understand Mitt Romney's rise to become a successful CEO and governor, one must look at his early experiences in the Mormon church, including his 2˝ years as a missionary.

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Missionary service was difficult. Missionaries could spend 2 1/2 years in the field and only win two converts.

To most voters, Romney's religion is not an obstacle for them to elect him the first Mormon president.

Nearly 77 percent of those questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released Thursday said the fact that a candidate is a Mormon would not be a factor in the way they vote for president.

But a significant portion -- 19 percent said they are less likely to vote for a Mormon.

So what is a man like Romney to do? As of now, talking extensively about his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is not part of his campaign strategy.

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, does talk about faith and portrays himself as a candidate of faith. But he speaks very little publicly about the specifics of his own faith.

There certainly is a political calculation involved: He has made it clear that he doesn't want to be known as the Mormon candidate; he would rather like to be known as a candidate who is Mormon.

Romney has not just been a bystander in his church, he has been a leader -- and a successful one.

Well before he plunged into the rough and tumble of political campaigns, challenges of the business world or running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney put his future on hold and gave himself over to God.

In the summer of 1966, at age 19, he became a full-time missionary of the Mormon church, leaving college to fulfill a Mormon calling.

The church encourages Mormons to heed the call to mission, but only about 38 percent of them do, according to the church.

He went to France to spread the word about the Church and try to convert French men and women to Mormonism. France isn't an easy place to do that. It's heavily Catholic and quite secular at the same time.

By the accounts of his fellow missionaries who were with him, Romney was one of one of the most successful of the group. Weekly diaries show that Romney was often on top of achievement lists, handing out more Books of Mormon than anyone else, knocking on more doors, getting more invitations to chat.

But two years into his mission, a drunken driver hit the car Romney was driving. He was in serious condition. A policeman actually believed he was dead.

He recovered, and returned to the mission even more determined to succeed.

"He became the top missionary. The lead missionary in the whole mission," said Dane McBride, one of his fellow missionaries in France.

His success as a missionary foreshadowed his success in other facets of his life.

He became a bishop. He made an immense fortune in the business world. He is more responsible than anyone for the financial success of the 2002 winter games. And he was elected Republican governor of traditionally liberal Massachusetts in 2003.

Despite all that, there is suspicion that is reminiscent of 1960 when Catholic John F. Kennedy was constantly asked if directives from the Vatican would influence his policies.

How would revelations or directives from the President of the Mormon Church (who is considered a living prophet) affect Romney if he became president of the United States?

Romney has said religion will not interfere with his presidency. But many voters aren't so sure. Of those voters, many have reasonable questions for Romney. Others are just downright prejudiced.

Candidate of faith
Get a look inside Romney's experience as a missionary -- when AC 360° talks to the man trying to position himself the "candidate of faith."
10 p.m. ET

During a campaign stop with a news camera present, Romney went up to a man and asked, "How are you?" The prospective voter said, "I'm one person who will not vote for a Mormon." Romney smiled and said, "Can I shake your hand anyway?" The man exclaimed, "No."

In a rare interview with Elder Russell Ballard, an Apostle of the church and one its 15 top leaders, Ballard said that faithful Mormons are obliged to follow the tenets of any revelation. But major revelations are "infrequent today because the foundation of the Church is solidly in place."

When asked if he thinks its proper for a politician to spread the word of the Church the same way they did while on their missions, Ballard replied, "No. I think that would be terribly misunderstood." He added that unlike many other houses of worship, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints does not endorse candidates.

While campaigning in Michigan last week, Romney said that he doesn't "think (Americans) care about the particular brand of faith, so much as whether we share values."

And, in fact, polls show that is true for most voters. But not all. And Romney and his team are aware of that.

That's why the strategy is being actively debated within his campaign whether to give a Kennedy-esque speech about his religion and the role it would play in his life as the president of the United States.

Asked specifically if he will do that, Romney said, "Perhaps. Haven't given that a final decision at this point."

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But he cheerily added: "I believe in God. I believe that all the children on earth are children of God."

Mitt Romney likes to talk publicly about faith. He'll have to decide how much to talk about his specific faith. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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