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Mitt Romney courts evangelicals at Liberty University

Without dwelling on – or barely mentioning – his own faith, Mitt Romney Saturday portrayed himself as a religious conservative who believes that “there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.”

Without dwelling on – or barely mentioning – his own faith, Mitt Romney Saturday portrayed himself as a religious conservative who believes that “there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.”

“Central to America’s rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life,” Romney declared.

His commencement address to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. put Romney in front of his largest audience so far in his presidential campaign (an estimated 35,000).

The institution, founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell  and billing itself as “the largest Christian university in the world,” was a crucial setting for Romney – who is a Mormon – as he tries to attract evangelicals and other social conservatives who’d held out hopes for Rick Santorum and other Republican presidential candidates now fallen by the wayside.

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RECOMMENDED: Gay marriage issue: Who does it hurt most, Obama or Romney?

Pushing both Romney – the presumptive Republican nominee – and President Obama off their economic message this week was same-sex marriage. Preempted by Vice President Joe Biden’s comments in support of same-sex marriage last Sunday, Obama found himself having to jump aboard.

That forced Romney to reiterate his position: That marriage as limited to one man and one woman should be enshrined in the US Constitution.

As Americans increasingly and apparently rapidly approve of gay marriage, this puts Romney on what critics call “the wrong side of history” on a civil rights issue, especially among younger voters (18-34), 70 percent of whom approve of same-sex marriage. Women too are more likely to be comfortable with gay marriage than men – a portion of the electorate Republicans need to attract in greater numbers.

But among social conservatives – especially evangelical Christians – Romney is right.

Speaking at Liberty University, his strongest applause line was his brief reference to the subject: “Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.”

Still, a significant minority of evangelical Christians are wary of the Mormon faith.

As recently as last fall, during the debates leading to the Republican primaries and caucuses, Dallas megachurch Baptist minister and prominent evangelical leader Robert Jeffress (who was supporting Texas Governor Rick Perry at the time), called Romney’s Mormon religion “a cult” and “not Christianity.”

In January, a survey by YouGov found that 20 percent of Republicans nationally – and 31 percent of Southern evangelical Republicans – would not vote for a “qualified Mormon” for president.

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But now that Romney is the apparent Republican nominee, that attitude seems to be changing.

Romney holds a nearly 50-point lead over President Obama (68-19 percent) among white evangelical Protestant voters, a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service finds. The survey also finds that even among the 49 percent of evangelical voters who say that Romney’s religious beliefs are different than their own, Romney still holds a 3-to-1 lead over Obama (67-22 percent).

“The survey signals that white evangelical Protestant voters are moving beyond the reservations they may have held earlier in the campaign about Romney’s Mormon faith,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. “While two-thirds of white evangelical voters say that it is generally important that a presidential candidate share their religious beliefs, their differences with Romney on religion are not translating into a significant lack of support at the ballot box.”

Even the Rev. Jeffress seems to have had a conversion – at least a political conversion – regarding Romney’s religion.

“I think there’s a realization among Christians that Jesus isn’t on the ballot this year,” Jeffress told NPR this week, “and so, I mean, many times, voting is voting for the lesser of two evils.”

Only gently and obliquely did Romney allude to the religious difference between himself and those he spoke to Saturday.

“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,” he said. “Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”