Wooing Evangelicals, and Treading Lightly on Marriage

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LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Mitt Romney used his address at Liberty University on Saturday to offer a forceful defense of faith, family and shared Judeo-Christian values, though he only briefly and obliquely alluded to the issue of same-sex marriage that has dominated the presidential race this past week.

In highlighting the virtues of the American system of values before graduates of the Christian university founded by Jerry Falwell, Mr. Romney said, "As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate."

"So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage," he said. "Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman."

Mr. Romney's closely watched speech comes as he tries to court evangelicals now that he is the presumptive Republican nominee after defeating Rick Santorum, the favored candidate of many Christian conservatives.

Mr. Romney struggled during the nominating contest to win states where a majority of the Republican primary voters were evangelical, and some Liberty students, expressing distrust of Mr. Romney's Mormon faith, were upset at his selection as the commencement speaker.

The university's student newspaper, The Liberty Champion, even offered pro and con commentary on its editorial page, arguing in the "con" column that, "Choosing Romney to speak continues a dangerous and unethical trend."

"Mitt Romney was announced as Liberty's 39th commencement speaker, great -- but he is a Mormon," the paper wrote.

In his remarks, Mr. Romney tried to confront those concerns in discussing the import of the Christian faith to the nation, saying, "Central to America's rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life." Despite concerns about Mr. Romney's faith, now that the primaries are over, surveys suggest that evangelicals are beginning to rally behind Mr. Romney's candidacy. In the latest New York Times/CBS News national telephone poll, conducted last month, 59 percent of evangelical voters said they would vote for Mr. Romney if the election was held today, and among white evangelicals, that number was 72 percent.

Mr. Romney's approach to wooing evangelical voters this time is a marked contrast to his strategy during his 2008 bid, when he vigorously courted evangelicals and social conservatives in Iowa, only to see them rally around Mike Huckabee, a Baptist pastor, during the caucuses there. In 2007, he also twice visited Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson, the religious broadcaster. On one occasion, he delivered the commencement address, but Mr. Robertson ultimately endorsed former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York.

In his address Saturday, Mr. Romney laid out a message of faith and family values.

In not dwelling much on the issue of same-sex marriage, Mr. Romney avoided focusing on an issue that has dominated the discourse in the presidential campaign since President Obama on Wednesday in support of such unions for the first time.

Advisers said that Mr. Romney was sensitive to the fact that he was delivering a commencement address and that he wanted to make sure his speech was focused on inspiring the new graduates rather than wading into the political news of the day. They also said the Romney campaign views the Obama administration's new stance on same-sex marriage as an issue that will ultimately benefit the Romney campaign in November, but not one that they need to address now.

Though Mr. Romney steered clear of his own faith, his appearance at Liberty was part of a broader effort by his campaign to appeal to evangelical voters in November.

"The fact that Liberty invited him is a positive step and signal, hopefully to a lot of evangelicals," Mark DeMoss, a Liberty alumni and Romney adviser who introduced Mr. Romney Saturday, said in an interview beforehand. "The University won't endorse a candidate but extending the invitation for him to speak is a helpful thing. It's good for the university, and it's good for the governor."

Saturday was not the first time a Mormon has delivered the commencement at Liberty. In 2010, Glenn Beck was the featured speaker. In fact, in last five years, the university's speakers have include a Catholic (Newt Gingrich in 2007) and a Jew (Ben Stein in 2009).

Unlike many colleges, Liberty features two graduation speakers -- one Saturday morning, as well as one at a baccalaureate service, which always includes a Christian leader.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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