WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney and the Republican Party's sizable bloc of evangelical voters are about to engage in a marriage of political convenience.
The presumptive GOP presidential nominee's march to the nomination proceeded largely without strong backing from the conservative Christian community.
Instead, it helped propel Rick Santorum to victories in 11 states. It's long regarded Romney as too moderate and too willing to change his views for political expedience. And his Mormon religion is off-putting to many.
But with Romney now the only hope that conservatives have to beat President Barack Obama in November, a partnership has begun to jell.
Romney will speak May 12 at Liberty University, the influential Virginia school that bills itself as the "largest Christian university in the world."
Experts think Romney will be able to rally conservative Christians with ease.
"They're going to vote for him," said Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
But the deal's not done yet, and the challenge for Romney is to make sure these voters don't stay home on Nov. 6.
"He has to be consistent with his message," said Bob Vander Plaats, the president of the FAMiLY Leader, a conservative Christian group in Iowa. And he has to pick a running mate who meets the conservatives' test.
Romney is well aware of the task. Senior adviser Mark DeMoss, a Liberty University trustee, thinks the Liberty speech will deliver an important boost.
"It will be an opportunity to address a whole lot of concerns for all 50 states in one place," said DeMoss, whose Atlanta public relations firm represents Christian organizations, leaders and causes. The event also should allow Romney to look like a hero: Tens of thousands are expected to attend, and since it's graduation day, they're likely to be in a festive mood.
Romney needs them. Polls show that he and Obama in a virtual tie among all voters, meaning it's important for each side to turn out its supporters in big numbers.
"If 3 or 4 percent of your voters stay home, that could make a big difference in states like Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania," said Gary Bauer, the president of American Values, a conservative group, and a 2000 GOP presidential candidate.
In 2008, 23 percent of voters identified themselves as white Protestant evangelicals. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, got 73 percent of their support, and Obama got 26 percent, according to exit polls. In April, a Pew Research Center survey found that 73 percent of them supported Romney and 20 percent Obama.
The reason for evangelicals' rally-round-Romney effect: their disdain for Obama and respect for Romney's moral values.
"They hate Obamacare, and see the debt as a moral issue," Land said. They view the 2010 federal health care law, which will require nearly everyone to obtain coverage by 2014 or pay a fine, as more big government. Their suspicions were compounded earlier this year when the White House sought to require most employers to offer contraception coverage -- a violation, many said, of this country's tradition of religious liberty.
The evangelicals also respect Romney's commitment to family and faith. He's been married 43 years and is regarded as a warmhearted family man who's been fiercely devoted to his religion.
But the doubts won't disappear quickly.
A March Pew survey found that only 41 percent of white evangelicals viewed Romney favorably.
Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who's enormously popular in the evangelical community, has yet to endorse Romney. The two are expected to meet Friday, though the Santorum camp has signaled that no immediate endorsement is likely.
After Liberty announced Romney's speech, the school's Facebook page included comments from people who were upset about the choice. Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. said the frustration came from people who were either strong supporters of others or "online students who were not as familiar with the university."
Many activists remain troubled by Romney's history. As the governor of Massachusetts, he signed into law a state health care measure that's widely regarded as the model for the federal plan. He ran for governor in 2002 vowing to uphold abortion rights, but now is staunchly anti-abortion. He said on the campaign trail that year, "I'm not a partisan Republican. I'm someone who is moderate ... my views are progressive."
Many conservatives haven't forgotten.
"To gain my support, Romney would have to demonstrate over the next six months that he truly understands the 'Laws of Nature and Nature's God,' as it says in our founding document, and that he's a man with political integrity," said Steve Deace, a nationally syndicated conservative radio talk-show host. "In other words, he'd have to completely repudiate who he's been up until this point in his career."
Lurking, too, is some concern about Romney's religion.
"Some people will have a hard time crossing that hurdle, no doubt," Vander Plaats said, but Land thought Romney will be fine. "A lot of people understand Mitt Romney shares a lot of their values," he said.
Lane Williams, a professor of communication at Brigham Young University-Idaho, pointed to recent comments by the Rev. Robert Jeffress as encouraging for Romney. Last October, the Dallas pastor, who introduced then-GOP candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry at a Washington conservative conference, told MSNBC's "Hardball" that Mormonism was a "theological cult." Romney, he said, is a "conservative out of convenience."
But earlier this month, he told Fox News that voters should back Romney.
"I haven't changed my tune. In fact, I never said Christians should not vote for Mitt Romney. When I talked about his theology, I was answering a question about theology," Jeffress said.
Obama, he said, "embraces non-biblical principles like abortion, and a Mormon like Mitt Romney who embraces biblical principles -- there's every reason to support Mitt Romney."
DeMoss of Liberty is confident that the Romney campaign can overcome the hurdles. If nothing else, he said, there's no evangelical alternative running. He also thinks that having supporters with strong ties to the evangelical community will be an asset.
"I'm pretty optimistic he's going to do fine," DeMoss said.
Gary Rose, the chairman of the politics and government department at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., agreed. "Santorum was their guy, but more important is their agenda of dislodging Obama," he said. "I don't believe they'll stay home."
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