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SCOT LEHIGH | WEB EXCLUSIVE

You gotta have faith, Mitt

It was a conversion experience on the road to Des Moines..

''We were driving along in a blizzard and there came a bright beam out of the swirling snow, and then this booming voice,'' Mitt Romney says in an imaginary - ah, extraordinary - webcast describing the event. Then, as the former Massachusetts governor recounts things, an authoritative voice intoned: ''You've lost your way. You'd better turn back before it's too late. Follow my light and I'll lead you to the right road''.

And so, in that webcast, entitled ''Mitt's First Video Letter to the South Carolinians,'' Romney, a Mormon, announces that he is leaving his longtime religion in search of a new faith.

''Given the clear message I received, I feel compelled to embrace a new religious commitment, one that will help me gather the strength I need for the challenges that lie ahead,'' Romney says. ''To everything, there is a primary season, a time to be reborn. And this is mine.''

Some skeptical witnesses offered a secular explanation for the occurrence, saying that Romney's campaign caravan had merely been pulled over by the Iowa State Patrol after mistaking a small farm lane for a secondary highway as it drove to a remote VFW post.

But in his webcast, the governor insists something much more profound was afoot.

''I looked over at Beth Myers, my former chief of staff, and said, 'Did you hear that? This is big.' We both agreed we hadn't experienced anything as awe-inspiring since the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics I put on.''

As to what denomination he intended to join, Romney says he is still unsure.

''I need to pray on that,'' he solemnly declares.

A political adviser said the campaign was actually exploring whether Romney could become an honorary member of a dozen different denominations. If that proves impossible, the campaign plans to conduct a poll on its website to let Romney supporters in South Carolina decide the former governor's new religious affiliation.

''Just as long as it's popular in South Carolina, it's okay with Mitt,'' this person said. ''His only stipulation is that he won't join any church that makes you grow a beard. He's so clean-cut and handsome, and Ann just wouldn't like it.''

Although there was some talk that, just as Saul became Paul after his famous conversion, Mitt might become Kitt or even Gritt, in the end the campaign decided against it..

''That could have lent him an appealing Western flair,'' lamented the adviser, ''but we were worried about the parodic possibilities, what with 'Twitt' lurking there just a few letters away.''

His change of religions is the most dramatic of several exercises in redefinition Romney has undertaken as he has pursued the Republican presidential nomination.

Although he once scorned the National Rifle Association, he recently revealed he has become a lifelong member of the organization. An avowedly strong supporter of abortion rights during his 1994 Senate campaign, Romney has since declared himself staunchly pro-life. An independent - and even a Democratic primary voter - during the Reagan-Bush years, he now cites Ronald Reagan as his personal hero. And that's just for starters.

But this latest move may prompt the most consternation, given the Romney family's long-standing ties to the Mormon Church and his status as one of its best-known adherents.

In his webcast, Romney tries to minimize the break, saying he hopes there will be no hard feelings among Mormons, and that he will continue to give generously to Brigham Young University, his alma mater.

"What's more, Ann has agreed she will stay a Mormon, as will Tagg and Matt,'' he said. ''The rest of the family will join me once I settle on a new faith.''

Although some political experts said Romney's conversion might strike some as expedient - polls have shown that some voters won't support a Mormon candidate - his campaign adviser insisted that most people simply won't care.

''Voters want to know that you're on their side, and what better way to demonstrate it than by joining their faiths?'' this person said. ''Besides, Mitt says he's hardly the first one to switch religions.''

Asked just who else he had in mind, the political adviser said he'd have to check. He called back some hours later to cite Henry of Navarre. Raised as a Protestant, Henry twice converted to Catholicism, the first time to save his life after the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572. Although he recanted those vows once the danger had passed, he converted again in 1593, this time to render himself acceptable as king to France's Catholic population. It was on that occasion he uttered the remark he is best known for: ''Paris is worth a mass.''

''It turns out since Mitt's days as a young man doing his Mormon mission in France, Henry of Navarre has been his great hero,'' the adviser noted..

''Other than Ronald Reagan, that is,'' he hastened to add.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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