Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul both sought to convert skeptics Saturday morning at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. Romney gave a decent speech which seemed presidential but ignited little passion, while Paul’s speech had religious themes but was mostly a sermon to the already converted.
The summit is an annual convention of religious and socially conservative voters, sponsored by the Family Research Council, a conservative organization. Both candidates have work to do to win over this crowd. Romney, the apparent front-runner in the GOP race, still faces caution, if not downright scorn, from religious conservatives who view him as an insincere flip-flopper on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. Paul strongly advocates against abortion right, but his brand of libertarianism tends to run counter to the religious conservative movement. It’s hard to imagine him agreeing with the antipornography activists at the convention supporting a federal crackdown on obscenity, for example, or using the military to crack down on Mexican drug gangs, as Texas Gov. Rick Perry advocated Friday to raucous applause.
Compared to the barn-burner speeches delivered by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and businessman Herman Cain, Romney’s speech felt a bit tepid, but it did the job. Romney focused on the idea of Americ declining as a world power, and a fall he implied President Obama was complicit in. “I will not surrender America’s role in the world,” Romney said. “If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I’m not your president. You have that president today.”
Romney didn’t endure any booing, but one heckler accused him of supporting gay marriage—though he was quickly shouted down by another audience member, and it didn’t throw Romney off his stride.
His biggest applause line of the day came when he said he wants to see the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade and turn the abortion issue back to the states. Romney also took a moment to decry “poisoned language” which undermines the conservative cause. He was referring to Bryan Fischer, a radio talk show host who has condemned Islam and Mormonism. Fischer spoke after Romney, but it was hard not to see Romney’s comments as also directed at Robert Jeffress, a pastor and Perry supporter who kicked up a storm Friday by calling Mormonism--which Romney practices--a “cult.”
Romney failed to excite. “Romney presented a very organizational, prepared presentation. He is less emotional than some of the other candidates. They seem to have more passion,” says William Horsey, a regular attendee from Blairstown, New Jersey. “He probably has the passion, it just doesn’t come out.” Others still doubt his sincerity on social issues, as well as his commitment to getting rid of President Obama’s healthcare overhaul law. “He has a hard time shedding that image, he’s rather liberal in those areas,” says Todd Dexter, an attendee from Plano, Texas. “He’s an eloquent man. I don’t think he’s a principled conservative.” Still others are put off by his religion. “I’m not at all comfortable with a Mormon in the White House,” says John Hocevar of Cleveland, repeating Jeffress’ view that the religion is a “cult.”
Paul isn’t known as a tactful speaker, but he tried to thread the needle by emphasizing a Biblical root to his libertarian views. “Even in Biblical times, they weren’t looking for a central bank to counterfeit our currency,” Paul said. A strong anti-war advocate, he also tried to promote peace as a family values issue. “One of the greatest threats to the family is war,” Paul said. The ballroom was filled with loyal Paul supporters, loudly cheering and chanting his name and talking points. But did he convince anyone not already on his fence? Many of Paul’s followers came only for his speech and to vote in the straw poll, leaving others grumbling that Paul is gaming the system. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and organizer of the event carefully said he wished people would watch all of the candidates. “This is a conference with a straw poll, not a straw poll and a conference,” Perkins says.