I was not too impressed with Mitt Romney’s speech at the time. I wanted to give the speech several days to settle before I weighed in. Several things seemed clear to me.
The first thing is that Romney had a clear "comma problem". Ron Fournier at the AP wrote about it like this:
Indeed, there was intense debate inside the campaign about whether to deliver a religion address. Romney was torn from the start, telling advisers that he had a "comma problem." Political journalists always follow his name by a comma, the words "a Mormon," and another comma, Romney said, according to two advisers involved in the conversations. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they’re not supposed to reveal private talks.
"If I give a speech about Mormonism," he complained privately, "I’ll never get beyond the comma problem."
Romney had to get beyond the discourse in the media about his religion. And it succeeded at this. Prior to the speech, the question was "will his religion matter" and after the speech it was "it shouldn’t matter". For example, the Des Moines Register and David Broder. It is not that Romney’s faith will stop being an issue to some voters. It is that people will stop writing about it. That is not just good for Romney, but it is good for America. Romney has done the country a service.
Second, Romney tried to rejigger the lines. David Brooks captures it nicely:
Romney’s job yesterday was to unite social conservatives behind him. If he succeeded, he did it in two ways. He asked people to rally around the best traditions of America’s civic religion. He also asked people to submerge their religious convictions for the sake of solidarity in a culture war without end.
In other words, the battle is between people without faith and people with faith, without regard to what that particular faith is. There is an argument that this has become part of the public stance of a large part of the GOP. Of course, there are internal contradictions on this. Romney’s comments about Muslims. The Southern Baptists’ public statements about Jews. Etc. But it is a coherent position with wide appeal to the American people for good reason. Broadly, the ridiculous assault on Romney by the media about whether atheists have a role in America is helpful
Third, as I have long asserted, there is a certain advantage to Romney to this discussion. Properly framed, there is no reason at all that the Mormonism issue should damage him too much. As Dick Morris explains in this interview with Bill O’Reilly, Romney may want to focus on this because it sucks the oxygen out of other issues. The more that Romney can talk about this broader conflict between the faithful and the secular or real people and the politically correct, the better his chances are. If the topic is his integrity or his flip-floppery (or as Morris calls it, his "flip-flop-flip on abortion") then Romney has a lot of problems. Romney’s task is probably to keep the focus on this, while opposing campaigns try to move the ball towards his integrity and character issues.
Fourth, and complimentary to this, the guy got a 30 minute infomercial and a lot of op-ed copy dedicated to him. It made it hard for people to evolve messages much last week. That clearly didn’t hurt Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani is bottoming out of, at least, this cycle of bad stories.
All in all, it could have been a good idea. There is little evidence that it is actually moving voters. Anecdotes are not positive. Polling will take some time, and it will depend on a whole lot of confounding factors like other stories coming out.
I will point out that this is not the timing that they wanted. As Peggy Noonan points out, this probably wasn’t the timing that they wanted:
In May he decided to do it, but timing was everything. His campaign wanted to do it when he was on the ascendancy, not defensively but from a position of strength. In October they decided to do the speech around Thanksgiving. Mr. Romney gathered together all the material and began to work in earnest. Then they decided it would get lost in the holiday clutter. They decided to go after Thanksgiving, but before Dec. 15. The rise of Mike Huckabee, according to this telling, didn’t force this decision but complicated it.
If Romney is the nominee, the histories will be revised to say that this was a great moment of American politics. No doubt about that.