There was a time in the Republican presidential nominating contest when evangelical Christians and other social conservatives loved anybody but Mitt Romney.
He was a suspect character, the former governor of liberal Massachusetts, wobbly on such key issues as abortion and gay rights. Then there was his religion – Mormonism – which many saw as downright unchristian.
In the early days, many of these key base voters turned to one after another of the other GOP hopefuls – Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, even an admittedly fallen but redeemed Newt Gingrich – settling in the end for Rick Santorum.
But they’re all gone now, and Mitt Romney remains the presumptive nominee.
Saturday at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. – “the largest Christian university in the world,” as it calls itself, founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell – Romney gave a speech that could turn out to be one of the most important in his campaign. And by all accounts he said just the right things needed to nail down this critical segment of his conservative base.
"Today's address was a tremendous opportunity for Governor Mitt Romney to communicate to social conservatives through one of the largest conservative evangelical venues in the country and Mr. Romney seized it by emphasizing the shared values he holds with evangelicals even while acknowledging theological differences,” Mr. Perkins said.
“In his well-delivered speech, he accentuated the core values issues that are essential to a strong nation and of great importance to evangelicals,” Perkins said. "Mitt Romney picked up on the message that energized Rick Santorum's campaign: America's financial greatness is directly tied to moral and cultural wholeness.”
“If I were him, that’s exactly what I would have said,” Mr. Land said, referring to Romney’s oblique reference to his own Mormon faith. “I would have acknowledged the difference in theology and not try to win the argument that we all believe in the same God because we don’t.”
Abortion and same-sex marriage – issues important to both liberals and conservatives – are unlikely to become the most important campaign issues. That will still be the economy.
But as the recent debate over women’s health services (including contraception) as well as President Obama’s embracing gay marriage show, they won’t go away.
Dave Welch, a former Republican National Committee research director and campaign adviser to John McCain, predicted the marriage debate would play out in Romney's favor even if Obama gets a short-term benefit, the Associated Press reports.
"Ohio, Florida, Indiana, North Carolina – these are states Obama won by slim margins in 2008, and now the evangelicals there, who didn't come out for McCain, are galvanized," Welch said. "This could cost him the election."
"They will not be the issues that will drive the election, but if it gets really close, they can make a difference," he told the AP. "They bring a special set of voters to the polls who care very deeply."
As Romney moved toward his likely nomination, the question was not whether evangelicals and other social conservatives would vote for him – they were unlikely to vote for Obama in any case – but whether they would work for his election enthusiastically, as they might have for Santorum.
With his speech in Lynchburg Saturday, Romney went a long way in assuring that’s the case.