When Mitt Romney takes the stage before 30,000 evangelical Christians at Liberty University tomorrow, he’ll have a chance to quell concerns about him among a group whose backing is key to his presidential campaign.
It’s a test he faces after a Republican primary in which Romney’s opponents portrayed him as wavering in his opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage.
Their doubts about Romney were on display four months ago as a group of 150 evangelical leaders gathered at a ranch west of Houston to decide which presidential contender to endorse.
Romney’s liaison at that gathering, Mark DeMoss, recalls trying to persuade the attendees that his candidate shared their stances on abortion and same-sex marriage -- a position the campaign underscored this week after President Barack Obama endorsed gay marriage. Ultimately, DeMoss fell short and the group endorsed former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
“There has been a pretty aggressive negative campaign against him -- not by the Democrats, but by a handful of self-described conservatives or even evangelicals who have really misrepresented his record in Massachusetts,” DeMoss, a Romney adviser who runs a public relations firm serving Christian groups, said in an interview. “That has made the hill probably a little steeper for him with conservatives, but I think there’s sufficient time to climb the hill, and I think he’s doing it.”
Romney, now the presumptive Republican nominee who will face Obama, publicly begins that climb with the commencement speech at Liberty, the evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded by the late televangelist, Reverend Jerry Falwell.
The speech provides a chance for him to mend the rifts DeMoss confronted and begin transforming the evangelicals’ animosity toward Obama into the turnout-driving energy and intensity necessary to win the election.
It also presents a risk as Romney, a former private-equity executive, tries to focus on the economy and jobs while reaching out to independent voters, many of whom are alienated by discussions about curbing abortion rights and banning gay marriage. Romney’s outreach to that constituency may have become more complicated yesterday with reports that, when he was in high school, he’d bullied a fellow student who was presumed to be gay. Romney said he didn’t recall the incident, apologizing nonetheless if it happened.
Skepticism About Romney
Some evangelical leaders who still harbor reservations about Romney say their community fears he will compromise on their issues or play down their significance to avoid turning off other groups.
“What a lot of conservatives are going to be looking at for Governor Romney, to move them from just voting for him to going out to work for him, is will he be delivering a consistent, conservative, principled message -- or will he do the feared Etch A Sketch mode and either change his mind or stay silent on the issues we care about,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Iowa-based Family Leader.
“I know that going into a general, you’ve got to be very careful and it’s a delicate balance -- but at the same time, if he loses his base, you ask McCain and Dole how that worked out for them,” he said, referring to Arizona Senator John McCain and former Kansas Senator Bob Dole, the losing Republican presidential nominees in 2008 and 1996.
Romney starts with less support among evangelicals than either McCain or former President George W. Bush won in the last two elections. McCain won 73 percent in his unsuccessful run, according to exit polls, while Bush captured 79 percent in his victorious 2004 re-election race.
A poll released yesterday by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service found Romney leads Obama 68 percent to 19 percent among the group.
The survey showed Romney has gained substantially with white evangelical Protestants, with his favorability at 67 percent compared with 40 percent in October 2011. Only 7 percent said they had a very favorable view of him.
The wariness of Romney’s critics stems from his past statements. During the 2002 Massachusetts governor’s race, Romney said he would “preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose” to have an abortion. He announced in a 2005 Boston Globe opinion piece that he was personally “pro-life” and believed that abortion rights should be left to the states.
While Romney has never publicly backed gay marriage, he wrote in a 1994 letter to the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican advocacy group, during his Senate challenge to the late Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, that he favored “full equality for America’s gay and lesbian citizens.”
He also told Bay Windows, a gay and lesbian newspaper, in an interview during that campaign that he backed the position of Massachusetts’ then-Governor Bill Weld that sick leave and bereavement time “should be offered to gay couples.”
“When people trust someone on those issues, they don’t need to talk about them,” Vander Plaats said. “The problem with Romney is that I think he’s still working to develop that trust.”
Complicating Romney’s job is his own Mormon religion, a faith that some evangelicals view with suspicion.
Robert Jeffress, the pastor of a Texas mega-church, said last year that Christians shouldn’t back someone who he said was a non-Christian like Romney, and he called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints a cult. Some Liberty students objected via the school’s Facebook social-networking page to the selection of Romney as the commencement speaker, arguing that Mormonism isn’t part of the Christian faith, according to a CNN report.
Advantage in Obama
Some Republican strategists say Romney has an advantage that may outweigh all those challenges: his opponent. Obama’s 2010 health-care overhaul and his announcement this week that he supports gay marriage have both prompted backlashes by the evangelical community.
Ralph Reed, chairman of the Duluth, Georgia-based Faith and Freedom Coalition, said Romney’s campaign has been wise to change strategies from 2008, when he aggressively -- and unsuccessfully -- courted the evangelical vote during his first presidential bid. Instead, he has run his 2012 campaign as a business-turnaround specialist focused almost exclusively on the economy.
“Voters aren’t idiots -- they’re sophisticated, they’re smart, and they’re not asking him to go down to the river and get baptized. They just want to know that he shares their values and hear him articulate their positions on key issues,” Reed said. “He’s got some work to do; the good news is he knows it, and the campaign knows it, and they’ve been busy about their business.”
Focus on Economy
That includes public appeals like Romney’s speech tomorrow, which is expected to focus on improving the economy as well as touch on themes of faith, family, work and service.
“The best cultural assets are values as basic as personal responsibility, the dignity of hard work, and, above all, the commitments of family,” Romney will say, according to excerpts of the address provided by his campaign today. “In this life, of course, the commitments that come closest to forever are those of family.”
Romney’s campaign is also reaching out privately to religious conservatives through DeMoss, a Liberty board member who will introduce him tomorrow, Peter Flaherty, a senior campaign adviser with strong ties to the evangelical community, and veteran Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, among others.
“He’s made up a lot of ground, and I think that a lot of them are prepared to be impressed,” said Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, “because they are very, very, very fearful of a second Obama term.”
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