VIRGINIA, May 12 – Republican Mitt Romney heads to America’s largest Christian university Saturday to court young religious conservatives and push family values in the wake of President Barack Obama’s gay marriage endorsement.,
The presumptive Republican nominee will also urge graduates not to “lose heart” in the face of diminished job prospects when he gives the commencement address at Liberty University in this small city in central Virginia, according to excerpts of his speech released by the campaign.
Virginia is one the key battlegrounds of the 2012 election, and First Lady Michelle Obama preempted Romney by delivering her own commencement speech in the state at a university less than 90 miles (145 kilometers) away.
Romney, taking advantage of his largest student audience of the year, will urge graduates to remain optimistic even though “our current troubles can be discouraging,” according to the excerpts.
“Millions wait on the day when there are jobs for everyone willing to work, and opportunities to match your hopes and your goals. But don’t lose heart, because that day is coming.”
With thousands of Christian graduates in his audience, Romney will touch on the importance of faith and “the commitments of family.”
“Take those away, or take them for granted, and so many things can go wrong in a life. Keep them strong, and so many things will go right,” he said.
With Obama’s landmark public endorsement of gay marriage, and this week’s splashy fundraiser at Hollywood heartthrob George Clooney’s home raising an unprecedented $15 million, it seemed an ideal time for the Republican candidate to tout family values and draw sharp contrasts with his rival.
But “this is not a policy speech,” a senior campaign official told reporters on background.
“Marriage isn’t the focus of the speech but he will mention the fact that marriage is an enduring institution.”
Romney is against gay marriage, but says same-sex couples should have some rights including the ability to adopt children.
He steered clear of the issue on Friday despite addressing supporters in North Carolina, where voters this week overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Instead he returned to his economic message, bashing Obama as “a president who’s installed some of the old liberal policies from the past,” the Washington Post quoted Romney as saying.
“And they didn’t work then, and they sure as heck are not working now and they’ll not work in the future.”
Many core Republicans remain wary of Romney, citing his shifting stance on issues like abortion.
A new poll by Religious News Survey shows Romney enjoying a huge 68-19 percent lead over Obama among white evangelical voters, far higher than when he was battling for the nomination against rivals like arch-conservative Rick Santorum.
The Democratic National Committee acknowledged a tough road ahead to sell Obama to evangelicals, but insisted it was possible.
In a DNC conference call, Liberty graduate student Christine Darby said it was Obama more than Romney whose policies “reflect the justice and compassion that Christ preaches.”
Obama, Darby said, “respects my values, and is looking out not only for my best interest, but for the best interests of all Americans and not just the wealthy few.”
Romney and the president have spent much of the last two weeks angling pitches at young Americans.
Liberty University, the largest evangelical university in the world with more than 80,000 students enrolled on campus or online, has faced controversy over inviting Romney, a Mormon.
Ties between evangelicals and the Mormon church have been strained. Pastor Robert Jeffress, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest US evangelical movement — last year described Mormonism as “a cult.”