Mitt Romney heads to Liberty University this weekend to deliver the
commencement address, walking a tightrope as he switches gears from the
“severely conservative” rhetoric required in the GOP primary to the more
moderate rhetoric needed to appeal to independent voters in the general
The crowd at Liberty U is no doubt expecting to hear his reaction to the president’s announcement on marriage equality and the passage of Amendment 1 in North Carolina. Romney’s campaign has billed the speech as part of his efforts to make inroads with social and religious conservatives he will need to win the election. As noted by Liberty faculty members Ken Blackwell and Ken Klukowski on the Huffington Post, with 50,000 students, the school is affiliated with the largest evangelical denomination in America, the 16 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The challenge was partially acknowledged today by Laura Ingraham, who tweeted, “Is the gay marriage issue a trap for Republicans or Mitt Romney?” On the one hand, Romney might feel the need to deliver “red meat,” further cementing his self-proclaimed “extreme” conservatism. If he goes too far, he risks losing support among moderate and independent voters (who are increasingly comfortable with same-sex marriage), who will see him as too extreme. But if Romney doesn’t go far enough, he loses a critical opportunity to use the one issue on which he should have credibility (he’s been fairly consistently conservative on the issue) to win over social conservatives who remain wary of him.
At the Values Voter summit last fall, team Romney pitched his remarks on religious tolerance and respect for different faith traditions as a kind of tough-love moment, “prebutting” Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, who was scheduled to speak after Romney. In his speech Romney said, "One of the speakers who will follow me today, has crossed that line … Poisonous language does not advance our cause. It has never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind. The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate."
Last week Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom pointed to those comments to defend Romney in response to criticism over the departure of the campaign’s only openly gay staffer, foreign policy spokesman Richard Grenell. And it was none other than Bryan Fischer who also last week claimed that Grenell’s departure was proof positive Romney was would cave to the power of the religious right, then attacked Romney for caving: "If Mitt Romney can be pushed around, intimidated, coerced, co-opted by a conservative radio talk show host in Middle America, then how is he going to stand up to the Chinese? How is he going to stand up to Putin?"
A tightrope for Romney indeed.