Mitt Romney

In late October, departing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney huddled with a godly group. Gathered in his kitchen were 15 of the country's leading evangelicals, including giants like Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. They'd come to nibble sandwiches, slurp soup and quiz Romney on his faith. Why on earth should they support Romney, a Mormon, in his presidential candidacy in 2008? Richard Lee, a Baptist minister from Cumming, Ga., got to the heart of the matter. What did Romney really believe about Jesus Christ? Romney didn't hesitate. "When I say Jesus Christ is my Lord and savior, I realize that means something different to you than it does to me," he admitted. But he urged them to remember their shared beliefs: the faith that Christ was born of a virgin, was crucified and rose after three days. The ministers were pleased. "So you're really a Baptist?" Lee cracked.

Romney, an unannounced but eager candidate for the Republican nomination, is hoping other evangelicals will have trouble telling the difference. With the Iowa caucuses only a year away, he is working tirelessly for the support of Christian conservatives. In another year, this might be a futile quest given many evangelicals' conviction that Mormonism is a heretical cult. (Unlike evangelicals, Mormons believe Jesus appeared in America after his resurrection and that God himself was once a man.) And the recent resurfacing of a letter Romney wrote expressing solidarity with gay-rights groups has many social conservatives wondering if a governor from Massachusetts is "700 Club" material.

But then there are the alternatives. GOP front runners John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are not beloved by the religious right. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback speak the language of evangelicals but have negligible name recognition nationwide. Some Christian conservatives have watched Romney's passionate opposition to gay marriage in Massachusetts and concluded he may be the one electable candidate who shares their principles in public and private life. "In terms of values," says Mark DeMoss, a Christian media strategist who has helped Romney reach out to evangelicals, "I have more in common with most Mormons than I do with a liberal Southern Baptist."

Romney has a lifetime's experience being the only Mormon in the room. At Stanford, he stuck out in a crowd of Roman Catholic and Protestant friends. "I went to the bars with the guys," he recalls. "We had fun ... I just didn't drink." At 20, he spent two years as a Mormon missionary in the virulently anti-American France of the late 1960s. "I'd say, ' Bonjour, madame, je m'appelle Elder Romney'," he says. "They'd say, 'Are you American? ... Get out of Vietnam!' "

He saved only a handful of souls, but the experience got Romney hooked on tough sells. As a founder of the venture firm Bain Capital, he grew extremely wealthy buying troubled companies and fixing them up for profit. By 1998, he'd concluded he "had enough money" and began looking for another challenge. He found it in Salt Lake City, where the planned 2002 Olympic Games were embroiled in allegations of financial mismanagement and malfeasance. Taking charge, Romney got the Games back on track and sold himself as a Mr. Fix-it when he ran for Massachusetts governor in 2002.

Romney's aides are hoping Republican primary voters will see a pattern: here's a turnaround specialist ready to fix the party, the country and the world. "The idea is to be the fresh perspective," says one adviser, who asked to remain anonymous describing strategy for a still-unannounced campaign. "McCain is yesterday, Giuliani is today, Romney is tomorrow."

Romney's greatest challenge, though, remains proving himself a true believer on social issues. Some conservatives have expressed serious concerns about a 1994 letter Romney wrote to gay-rights activists vowing to make "equality for gay and lesbians a mainstream concern." Romney says that "equality" had nothing to do with marriage back then. "Even the members of the Log Cabin Republican club said, 'Oh, you don't have to be in favor of gay marriage'." Since then, he says, "the media and the elite and the Democratic Party have moved to very much favoring same-sex marriage," he says. "I haven't moved to the right, they've moved to the left." On abortion, he is now pro-life, because he says he's become convinced that "the Roe v. Wade philosophy has so cheapened human life." He sounds like a Baptist, or at least the kind of Baptist Republicans elect.