Those looking for hints about what role faith might play in the presidential election campaign would do well to recall Ted Kennedy's bitter and bruising 1994 Massachusetts Senate campaign against Mitt Romney.
Facing the prospect of losing his well-worn seat to the political novice, Kennedy and his surrogates unleashed a broadside against Romney's Mormon faith. The episode may offer a preview of how the Obama re-election campaign will address Romney's faith, and how Romney will respond.
Sen. Kennedy was the weakest he'd ever been as he sought re-election in 1994. In his six terms in office, Kennedy had never trailed a general election opponent in a poll, and he'd never won by fewer than 14 percentage points.
But 1994 was different. Since his last election, the image of Kennedy as a philandering, reckless drunk had been etched in voters' minds, in part due to revelations of his carousing that had emerged three years earlier in the rape trial of his nephew, William Kennedy Smith.
Plus at 62, Kennedy looked tired, old and overweight -- a stark contrast to the relatively young, fit, clean-living Romney. "Kennedy fatigue," more than one political pundit observed, had set in. By September Romney had won the Republican primary and was neck-and-neck with Kennedy.
Desperate to tarnish Romney's family man image, Kennedy and his surrogates attacked Romney's faith, citing the Mormon Church's past racially exclusive policies and its denial of the priesthood to women. (To cover himself, Kennedy also began publicly calling for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church.)
Kennedy was making a calculated appeal to female voters, political commentators said, a demographic Kennedy had long depended on but was struggling to attract that year.
Kennedy had plenty of help from surrogates, including nephew Joseph Kennedy, then a Massachusetts representative. "I believe very strongly in the separation between church and state," Rep. Kennedy, who referred to himself as his uncle's "pit bull," told the press. "But I think that if a particular church has a belief that blacks are second-class citizens, and that's the stated belief of the church, or that women are second-class citizens, I mean you ought to take a look at those issues."
The race-based attacks were, by any objective measure, unfair. For one, Rep. Kennedy's accusation that the church still discriminated against black members was flat out wrong. The church had changed its policies years earlier and by then allowed black members to hold leadership positions.
What's more, there was no proof that Romney approved of his church's past discrimination. In fact, Romney's father, George, a former governor of Michigan, was a fierce civil rights activist, ahead of his time both in his church and in the Republican Party.
And Mitt clearly admired his father for that leadership. "He marched in civil rights demonstrations or parades, opposed the Goldwater platform in 1964 and refused to endorse Goldwater as a presidential candidate when my father was governor," the candidate explained at a campaign event. "So despite the misunderstanding about my church, my father's personal views were manifest by his actions in the public and private arenas."
Romney was also targeted by what Ron Scott describes in his recent book Mitt Romney as a coalition of "somewhat ad hoc, but passionately dogged, Mormon anti-Romney advocacy groups that badgered him relentlessly throughout the 1994 campaign."
At one point, four members of his Mormon congregation charged that Romney had a few months earlier referred to gays and lesbians as "perverse." Others demanded that Romney discuss his church's opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and the practice of plural marriage (which the church had outlawed a century earlier).
Romney tried to carefully separate himself from his church on some cultural issues. "My church feels that abortion is not a good choice," he told Bay Windows, the state's gay and lesbian newspaper. "However, my mother advocated for the legalization of abortion. So they, like I, can live by and have personal beliefs which celebrate the diversity of our society, and fight for the right of all people to live by their own beliefs and to make their own choices. Their example and my experience is one of showing respect and tolerance for all others."
The Kennedy campaign refused to disavow Joe Kennedy's comments. The senator then backtracked on previous promises not to raise religion, suggesting that Romney should be asked tough questions about his faith.
"Of course, it's about religion," Martin Nolan, a longtime Boston reporter told the New York Times about the purpose of Kennedy's attacks. "Mormonism is an exotic concept in Massachusetts. It's part of his game plan to create doubt about his opponent any way he can."
Finally, after remaining silent about the attacks on his faith for weeks, Romney summoned the media to his campaign headquarters in late September, with his 87-year-old father at his side.
There was an obvious irony in Kennedy's attacks, and Romney portrayed them as a betrayal of President Kennedy's legacy. "In my view," Romney said, "the victory that John Kennedy won was not for just 40 million Americans who were born Catholic -- it was for all Americans of all faiths. And I'm sad to say that Ted Kennedy is trying to take away his brother's victory."
Then, as Michael Kranish and Scott Helman recount in their recent book The Real Romney, George Romney, who had been wandering through the press gaggle visibly agitated, suddenly blurted out, "I think it is absolutely wrong to keep hammering on the religious issues. And what Ted is trying to do is bring it into the picture."
The press conference marked a turning point in campaign. The next day, a Boston Globe editorial stated, "It's fine to ask Romney what he thinks about welfare and other social issues, but don't hit him for following the tenets of faith within a religious community."
The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston also condemned the attacks. An editorial in the diocesan newspaper The Pilot chastised the Catholic Kennedy as well as the Boston Globe: "And why have they [the Globe] raised the issue of Mitt Romney's Mormonism again and again? Does one have to be a cynic to think that the Globe would like to portray Mitt Romney as an anti-women Mormon and therefore unfit for the Senate?"
Rebuked by his allies, Kennedy performed what NPR described as "an about face" on Romney's religion, halting the religious attacks and training his fire on, among other things, Romney's work at Bain Capital. Joe Kennedy called Romney to apologize, then released a letter in which he claimed to "deeply regret" his remarks.
Kennedy's poll numbers began to recover, and by mid-October the incumbent enjoyed a double-digit lead. On Election Day, Kennedy won comfortably by 17 points.
SO WHAT, IF ANYTHING, does all this portend for 2012? Desperate to rally minority and female voters, the Obama campaign might be tempted to raise the Mormon Church's past policies. All accounts suggest Obama has ditched the mostly above-the-fray campaign he waged in 2008 and is employing a brass-knuckle approach this time around.
"What Obama and his team have accepted is that, while there's a lot to be said for changing politics and elevating the discourse, your most important job as president is to defend your priorities," the New Republic's Noam Scheiber wrote recently. "And the way you do that is to win."
To that end, the campaign has hired Stephanie Cutter as deputy campaign manager to oversee its daily combat operation. According to Scheiber, Cutter is legendary among Democrats for her "Dresden-esque" campaign tactics, referring to the Allies' overwhelming and indiscriminate bombing of Dresden, Germany, at the close of World War II.
As a White House advisor told Scheiber, "It's always been true that you're either playing offense or defense, and offense is better than defense."
There is a case to be made that Romney's faith is a net benefit to him and his candidacy. But that doesn't mean Obama won't lash out if he gets desperate.
In a close race, with a by-any-means-necessary campaign comfortable with gratuitous rhetorical firebombing and incendiary attacks, it may not be a matter of if Obama attacks Romney's religion, but when.