VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney made only a passing reference to his LDS faith as he continued his outreach Saturday to conservative Christians in a graduation speech at Regent University, the school founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.
Instead, Romney, who is intensely courting this key segment of his Republican Party's base in hopes of winning the 2008 presidential nomination, expounded on themes less specific to his candidacy such as the importance of child-rearing and marriage and the presence of evil in the world.
He said "there is no work more important to America's future than the work that is done within the four walls of the American home" and he criticized people who choose not to get married because they enjoy the single life.
"It seems that Europe leads Americans in this way of thinking," Romney told the crowd of more than 5,000. "In France, for instance, I'm told that marriage is frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party can move when their term is up. How shallow and how different from the Europe of the past."
And he twice made reference to the Virginia Tech shootings on April 16 in which a gunman killed 32 people before killing himself.
"We're shocked by the evil of the Virginia Tech shooting," Romney said. "I opened my Bible shortly after I heard of the tragedy. Only a few verses it seems after the Fall, we read that Adam and Eve's oldest son killed his younger brother. From the beginning there has been evil in the world."
He added: "Pornography and violence poison our music and movies and TV and video games. The Virginia Tech shooter, like the Columbine shooters before him, had drunk from this cesspool."
Robertson, who has not endorsed any of the 2008 presidential candidates, called Romney an "outstanding American."
The former governor praised Robertson in a glancing mention of their religious differences.
"When he was running for president, he offered to leave this beautiful place, his home, to lead a people of many faiths," Romney said, noting Robertson's run for the White House in 1988. "Today he's offered one of those to come visit him in his home."
It was Romney's second appearance at Regent University in the past four months. His visits underscore the competition for support from top Christian conservative leaders such as Robertson, who reaches millions through his television and radio programs. Romney, along with several other GOP hopefuls, attended a convention of religious broadcasters in February. Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani will appear at Regent next month.
Some conservative Christians have questioned the intensity of Romney's opposition to abortion, as he said he would not seek additional restrictions when he was running for governor. And some conservative evangelicals also wonder about Mormonism. On the Web site of the Christian Broadcasting Network, another Robertson entity, a page called "How Do I Recognize a Cult?" says that "when it comes to spiritual matters, the Mormons are far from the truth."
In private meetings with conservative leaders and members of Congress, Romney has argued that his experiences dealing with stem cell research as governor hardened his antiabortion views, and he tried to explain misconceptions about his faith.
But publicly, he has emphasized he is a "person of faith" and said the Mormon Church won't be instructing him about how to conduct his campaign or presidency. To be sure, Mormons are major Romney backers; data from his campaign finance records in his three months as a presidential candidate showed that Provo, Utah, has the Zip code where he raised most of his money. Provo is the home of Brigham Young University, his alma mater.
Romney aides have been repeatedly asked if the candidate will deliver an address explaining his religion, as John F. Kennedy did in 1960. They've generally dismissed the idea, but without foreclosing the possibly. They argue that voters are more concerned about Romney's views on issues than the particulars of his faith, although some published polls have shown that sizable numbers of Americans would be reluctant to back a Mormon president.