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Romney Treads Lightly In Speech To Liberty Grads

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And as we mentioned earlier in the program, Mitt Romney finally addressed the gay marriage issue in a speech at Liberty University, that's a center of evangelical teaching. Romney is reaching out to evangelicals who've been skeptical of him because of his Mormon faith. More than 30,000 people turned out. It's one of the biggest crowds Romney's ever addressed.

NPR's Ari Shapiro is at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. And, Ari, can you explain why this speech has been so important for Romney?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: You know, during the primaries, in one state after another, evangelical and social conservatives went for really anyone but Romney. They're skeptical of his Mormon religion. They're skeptical of his record as Massachusetts governor. Now, he is the presumptive nominee of their party, so the two sides have to learn how to live with each other.

Mitt Romney needs the evangelical votes. He needs people to turn out in the fall. And the evangelicals need to make sure they have a voice in his campaign and perhaps in an eventual Romney White House.

RAZ: So what did that olive branch look like?

SHAPIRO: Well, Romney gave a speech that was not overtly political. It was overtly religious. He encouraged the students to live a life guided by their faith. He did not say the word Mormon once, but he said the word Christ a lot, and the word God even more. Here was part of his message.

MITT ROMNEY: Strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of being blessed with. Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from government.

RAZ: Ari, that sounds like an oblique jab at Democrats. Was there any overt politics in the speech?

SHAPIRO: Almost none. The most overtly political line was when Romney said, marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman. That got a huge standing ovation, coming just a few days, of course, after President Obama announced his support for gay marriage. Romney didn't go much farther than that in terms of politics, though. On the whole, this speech was overwhelmingly about faith and the value of having a personal relationship with God.

RAZ: Is that going to satisfy these voters?

SHAPIRO: You know, I think just coming here is a big step in the right direction. Here's what Professor Mark Rozell told me - he studies the evangelical movement at George Mason University.

MARK ROZELL: I think going into the general election, he does need to do something to connect with the evangelical core of the Republican Party, and Liberty University is an appearance that gives him some credibility and some visibility with much of that community in the Republican Party. And I think, symbolically, it's important for him.

RAZ: Ari, what did you hear from the folks in the crowd watching that speech?

SHAPIRO: You know, lots of them did not vote for Romney in the primary. Yet every one of them told me they will vote for him in the general election. They are all willing to overlook whatever concerns they might have had about him because they harbor so much hostility, really, towards President Obama.

The man who introduced Romney today is a senior campaign adviser who's also on the board of Liberty University named Mark DeMoss. He put it this way. He said, some people want a president they will agree with on everything. If that's your standard, perhaps you should run yourself.

RAZ: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro, covering Mitt Romney's speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Ari, thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.