David J. Phillip, Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney's efforts to win over evangelical voters uncomfortable with his Mormon faith may be getting a boost as a result of President Barack Obama's newly announced support for gay marriage.
"This helps unite the Republican base behind Mitt Romney," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a top surrogate for Romney, said of the sharp contrast between Obama's position and the presumptive GOP presidential nominee's backing of traditional marriage.
He said Romney has a prime opportunity to connect directly with evangelical voters when he delivers the commencement speech Saturday at Liberty University, founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell.
"It's a pivotal part of the voting block and I think the more they get to know the Romney family and his positions on the issues, the more fired up they'll be," Chaffetz said. "They will feel increasingly comfortable with Mitt Romney as the president of the United States."
Some students at the Virginia campus have already raised concerns about the invitation extended to Romney last month, citing the belief that Mormons aren't fellow Christians.
But Dave Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, said those concerns are dwindling among evangelical voters, especially now that Romney is the only major candidate siding with them on gay marriage.
"I don't think there's any doubt he's sealed the deal," with most evangelical voters, Woodard said, with his stand against gay marriage. "I think he can make up for any other problems he has with them with just this one issue."
Woodard said he's starting to see South Carolina voters get behind Romney, despite his bruising loss there in January's primary election to former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich.
"There is beginning to be some genuine enthusiasm for Mitt Romney," he said. "They're just not going to talk about his Sunday morning activities. He has the conviction on the issues they like."
Obama's decision to come out in favor of gay marriage earlier this week amounts to a gift to the Romney campaign, Woodard said. "What they've done is give him an issue that highlights his strengths," he said.
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle, a Republican activist, agreed Romney is building momentum among evangelical voters.
"Certainly, his speech tomorrow at Liberty is going to be a step in that direction," Hagle said. The gay marriage issue, he said, is already "ginning up that enthusiasm anybody needs to win. It's just not enough to be against somebody, you have to be for somebody else."
Hagle said he expects Romney to try to stick to focusing on the economy on the campaign trail while surrogates talk about his position on gay marriage and other social issues.
He said it would be a good idea for Romney to briefly state his stand on traditional marriage during his speech at Liberty University, while speaking about faith in more general terms.
Romney also needs to address his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a "way that would both help to assure the evangelicals, but not alienate others," Hagle said.
He suggested Romney "talk about religious liberty, shared values of faith and freedom" during the speech, rather than attempting to deal with differences in belief.
"It can be a tricky sort of thing, particularly at Liberty University," Hagle said. "The religious aspects are very important there."
Both Woodard and Hagle said Romney would benefit from showcasing his own family values in the speech.
"The greatest testimony to his faith is his family," Woodard said. "The values that Liberty University treasures, not only is Mitt Romney the protector of them, he is the embodiment of many of them."
Neither gay marriage nor religion is mentioned in the excerpts from Romney's speech released Friday, but the candidate does speak of the importance of family life.
Romney said in the speech that he "never once regretted missing any experience or opportunity in business in order to be with my wife and five sons," a lesson learned from his father.
He also returns to the centerpiece of his campaign, the economy, telling the new graduates the nation's current economic troubles can be discouraging.
"You are ready for jobs that were supposed to be ready for you. Millions wait on the day when there are jobs for everyone willing to work, and opportunities to match your hopes and your goals," Romney said, urging them not to lose heart, because that day is coming.
The speech is Romney's first at Liberty University and his first to a Christian college this election. During his 2008 White House bid, he gave a commencement address at Regent University, founded by another televangelist, Pat Robertson.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. told Christianpost.com that since the school was founded in 1971, 21 of the 39 commencement speakers were non-evangelicals.
"Liberty is to evangelical Christians what Notre Dame is to Catholics and Brigham Young is to Mormons," Falwell Jr. said in an interview posted on the website. "I don't think Obama giving the commencement speech at Notre Dame would be a big deal so it's interesting to see people surprised Gov. Romney would address Liberty's graduates."
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