- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2012

Even before President Obama announced his support for gay marriage earlier this week, Mitt Romney faced a delicate balancing act for his speech at the graduating class of Liberty University this Saturday.

The former governor of Massachusetts headed into the heart of conservative Virginia to speak to a graduating class of a college founded by Baptist television evangelist Jerry Falwell.

All Republican candidates in recent years have made the trek to Liberty University to make an appeal to evangelical voters. But as the first Mormon on track to win the Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Romney will be in somewhat friendly yet unpredictable territory where his religious beliefs could easily come under fire.

Even though the speech has been on Mr. Romney’s schedule for months, Mr. Obama’s decision to speak out in favor of same-sex marriage this week only ratchets up the stakes, as politicos in both camps try to figure out if there will be any fallout among social conservatives in critical swing states like Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The Obama campaign is prepared for an attack, holding a press conference “pre-buttal” to the speech in which clergymen and a Liberty University student defended Mr. Obama’s Christian faith. The Obama campaign also seemed to be going on offense on the gay marriage issue during a Thursday night fundraiser in Seattle when the president said Mr. Romney was “backwards on equality.”

“The president has stood up for Christian principles,” said Christine Darby, a graduate student who served as the president of the college’s College Democrats. “His faith teaches him that hard work and responsibility does pay off – if everyone plays by the same rules.”

On a conference call with reporters Friday, the Rev. Derrick Harkins said Mr. Obama reflects the Christian values of “loving our neighbors, being our brother’s and sister’s keeper and dignity for all.” On several issues, such as immigration, helping those in need, and environmental issues, Mr. Harkins said the president was more in line with Christian values than Mr. Romney – although he steered clear of attacking his Mormon faith.

If excerpts of the speech released Friday are any indication, Mr. Romney plans to focus on the importance of family and its link to the economy, not gay marriage or his own Mormon beliefs.

“In the most practical, everyday terms, the best cultural assets are values as basic as personal responsibility, the dignity of hard work, and, above all, the commitments of family,” Mr. Romney will say, according to the excerpts of the prepared remarks. “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.”

Mr. Romney also plans to mention an anecdote in which he asked his father, former Michigan Governor George Romney, about his greatest accomplishment in life.

“Without a moment’s pause, his answer was, ‘Raising you four kids,’” Romney is expected to say. “I had his example to follow, and I have never once regretted missing any experience or opportunity in business in order to be with my wife and five sons … Among the things in life that can be put off, being there when it matters most isn’t one of them.”

When it comes to the bleak economic outlook, Mr. Romney is planning to tell the students not to “lose heart,” and to stay focused because “you are ready for jobs that were supposed to be ready for you.”

There’s only one passing criticism of President Obama included in the excerpts.

“I’m not sure quite why, but lately I’ve found myself thinking about life in four-year stretches,” he plans to say. “And let’s just say that not everybody has filled these past four years with as much achievement as you have.”

Leaving nothing to chance, Mr. Harkins said the Obama campaign intends to fight hard for the evangelical vote even though it might be difficult, and he noted that the president won twice as many evangelical voters in 2008 than Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, did in 2004.

Even so, Mr. Romney has deep advantage over Mr. Obama among evangelicals, according to a poll released Thursday by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service, which found that the president trailed Mr. Romney 19 percent to 68 percent among white evangelicals.

The poll, which was conducted May 2 to May 6 before Mr. Obama’s announcement on gay marriage, showed strong divisions in voting preferences among different Christians. Overall, Catholic voters said they would be more likely to vote for Obama than Mr. Romney – 46 percent to 39 percent – although white Catholic voters favor Mr. Romney over Mr. Obama by significant margin – 48 percent to 37 percent.

Among, mainline Protestant voters, Obama has a clear edge, with 50 percent supporting him and 37 percent supporting Mr. Romney.

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