Romney Likely to Ignore Religion During Speech at Liberty University

Romney will avoid controversy during commencement address

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Despite a perfect storm of circumstance, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's speech at a religious university on Saturday is likely to amount to much ado about nothing.

Romney, a Mormon, is scheduled to give the commencement address at Liberty University, a Christian liberal arts college founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va., on Saturday morning. The university has traditionally provided conservative politicians an opportunity to address faith and politics.

Many saw the speech as an opportunity for Romney to reassure evangelical Christians who might have been wary of embracing a Mormon candidate and rally them to him around his firm opposition to President Obama's recent announcement of support for gay marriage.

Jeff Bell, a conservative and author of The Case for Polarized Politics, says that social issues have long benefited Republicans in elections and Romney's best chance at winning the White House revolves around the resurgence of social issues firing up the GOP base. In fact, Bell says, an embattled President George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 thanks to conservative fears over the specter of same-sex marriage.

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"In 2004 the same-sex marriage issue got into the general election when the Massachusetts Supreme Court made its decision (allowing it) and the exit polls indicated that was decisive in re-electing George W. Bush at a time when he had a lot of other minuses," Bell says.

Romney, who endured an extended primary campaign in part because he could not decisively win over the party's evangelical base, can benefit on the marriage front because he's been more consistently against it than on other social issues, Bell says.

"He's been consistent on marriage; he hasn't been as consistent on abortion, but he had to deal with this issue when the Massachusetts Supreme Court became the first court to overturn traditional marriage in 2003, which happened to be his first year as governor," Bell says. "He's been a little erratic on the larger issue of gay rights, but on marriage I don't think he ever came close to endorsing marriage even when he was in his more liberal phase in 1994."

But excerpts of Romney's speech, released on background by his campaign, steer clear of both faith and the marriage issue. Instead, Romney concentrates on the importance of revitalizing the economy and refers to traditional values such as hard work and the importance of family.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

Democrats sought to paint Romney as out of line with Christian values during a press call on Friday based on his support of a House Republican budget that would result in cuts in programs such as food stamps and Medicaid that benefit the poor while preserving tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

Chicago Pastor J.R. Kerr said the House-passed budget embraced by Romney "does not uphold the core values of caring for those in need and shared sacrifice" and cited a letter sent by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops claiming the document "failed a basic moral test."

Romney's presence on campus has been the source of some controversy, as some evangelical Christians do not view Mormons as legitimate Christians.

But Rev. Derrick Harkins, the faith outreach director for the Democratic National Committee, stressed that Democrats were not offering critiques along those lines.

"The issue of personal faith is not at the center of this conversation at all," he said. "What we really want to bring to the fore is the fact that the values expressed by Mitt Romney in relation to the policies that he'd like to inflict upon Americans don't represent the kind of values that we believe people of faith across the spectrum would find appealing."

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The argument doesn't seem to be catching on though. A new poll released Thursday shows Romney besting Obama among white evangelicals 68 percent to 19 percent.