LYNCHBURG, Va. — Mitt Romney, needing badly to stir momentum among skeptical evangelical Christians vital to his presidential hopes, told a polite audience Saturday at Liberty University, an influential Christian school, that he shares and deeply respects their values.
"People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology," said Romney, whose Mormon religion has been criticized in some evangelical circles.
"Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview."
Romney spoke at the school's commencement, and got his most enthusiastic response when he reiterated his view that "marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman." President Barack Obama earlier this week said he supported same-sex marriage, a sure-fire way to galvanize evangelicals and other social conservatives to work against his re-election.
Romney seized the chance to show he was behind them, as his remark got one of the day's three standing ovations; the others, consisting of brief, subdued applause, came at the start and end of his talk.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee needs this crowd, particularly in this pivotal state. Throughout the primary and caucus season, he did poorly among evangelical Christian voters like those who support and attend this school, which bills itself as "training champions for Christ since 1971."
It was founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority, and emerged as a political force during Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential run. Falwell's son Jerry Jr. is now the president and chancellor.
Romney had three goals Saturday: To assure everyone present that he shared the audience's values, that he'd lived a good moral life and was running for president to heal the ailing economy.
"Central to America's rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life," he said.
Romney dwelled heavily on his own family. "I have never once regretted missing any experience or opportunity in business in order to be with my wife and five sons," he said in a solemn tone.
"In this life, of course, the commitments that come closest to forever are those of family. Maybe you've heard that (wife) Ann and I have a pretty large family, and I'm sure glad I like having grandchildren because every time I turn around there's more of them."
Romney, who's been married for 43 years, has 18 grandchildren.
Though the festive crowd was generally supportive, many continued to express reservations about Romney. Last month, the Liberty Champion, the student newspaper, wrote in a commentary, "Mitt Romney was announced as Liberty's 39th commencement speaker, great — but he is a Mormon."
Many conservative Christians remain dismayed by his center-right record as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. He was then an abortion-rights supporter; today he stresses his firm opposition. He signed state health care legislation viewed as a model for the 2010 federal law that requires nearly everyone to obtain coverage in 2014 or face a penalty. Conservatives deride the federal law as "Obamacare," branding it an unwelcome government intrusion into a personal, private matter.
"He's the lesser of two evils," said Kristine Funk, a Manchester, N.H. pre-school teacher present at the graduation, said of Romney. "I don't agree with a lot of his positions, but I can't vote for Obama."
Sarah Rouse, a stay-at-home mother from Goldsboro, N.C., offered the same kind of endorsement. "I like Romney more than Obama. Obama is destroying our country through his socialistic policies," she said.
Romney needs this community, with its history of political activism, to get out and spread the word. The speech to 34,000 people Saturday was "an opportunity to address a whole lot of concerns for all 50 states in one place," said Mark DeMoss, a Liberty trustee who introduced Romney.
Romney's talk, which he called a "great life honor," had messages both subtle and obvious. He lavishly praised founder Falwell, and told the graduates, "Moral certainty, clear standards, and a commitment to spiritual ideals will set you apart in a world that searches for meaning."
He also had a warning: "Your values will not always be the object of public admiration. In fact, the more you live by your beliefs, the more you will endure the censure of the world.
"Christianity is not the faith of the complacent, the comfortable or of the timid. It demands and creates heroic souls like Wesley, Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, John Paul the Second, and Billy Graham," he said, citing notable theologians. "Each showed, in their own way, the relentless and powerful influence of the message of Jesus Christ. May that be your guide."
Romney also wanted the crowd to remember his economic message, the centerpiece of his campaign.
"For you and so many young Americans, our current troubles can be discouraging. You are ready for jobs that were supposed to be ready for you," he said. "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."
Polls and analysts all suggest that Romney will have little trouble winning the votes of the evangelicals — at least, those who show up.
They will, said Rev. Virginia Craig, a Marion, N.C., pastor. "Some people don't see it (Mormonism) as a Christian faith," she said. And it bothered her "a little bit — but not enough to make me not vote for him. I won't vote for the other candidate."