COLLEGE STATION, Texas - Mitt Romney asked the nation yesterday not to reject his presidential candidacy because of his religion, assuring evangelical Christians and other religious voters that his values matched theirs in a speech that used the word Mormon only once.

The only passing mention of his Mormonism in his 20-minute speech here at the George Bush Presidential Library underscored just how touchy the issue of Romney's faith has been since he began running for the Republican nomination.

He and his aides had agonized for months over whether to even give the speech. Those against it said there was no need to do it because he was doing so well in early voting states, advisers said.

But Romney's former dominance of the Republican field in Iowa was faltering as evangelical voters have been drawn to Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor, in these final weeks before the state's caucuses. Evangelical Christians, who make up a crucial voting bloc in the Republican Party, consider Mormonism to be heretical, and polls have indicated a significant number of Americans are less likely to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate.

Nevertheless, Romney said he would not distance himself from what he called "the faith of my fathers."

"I believe in my Mormon faith and endeavor to live by it," he said.

But showing the fine line he was treading, he promised not to be beholden to church authorities, and devoted the majority of his address to calling for a robust role for religion in public life, declaring there was a common moral heritage across religious lines in the country that he would champion.

"I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from the God who gave us liberty," he said, drawing applause from an audience of about 300 invited guests, which included supporters and religious leaders. "Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage."

Romney's speech was part of a delicate balancing act in which he asserted specific religious doctrines should not matter in the voting booth but argued the nation's founders envisioned a prominent place for faith in the public square. *