LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Mitt Romney, needing badly to stir momentum among skeptical evangelical Christians vital to his presidential hopes, told a polite audience Saturday at Liberty University, an influential Christian school, that he shares and deeply respects their values.
"People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose when there are so many differences in creed and theology," said Romney, whose Mormon faith has been criticized in some evangelical circles.
"Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview."
Speaking at the school's commencement, Romney got his most enthusiastic response when he reiterated his view that "marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman." President Barack Obama said last week that he supports same-sex marriage, a surefire way to galvanize evangelicals and other social conservatives to work against his re-election.
Never miss a local story.
Romney seized the chance to show that he is behind them as his remark got one of the day's three standing ovations; the others, consisting of brief, subdued applause, came at the start and end of his talk.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee needs this crowd, particularly in this pivotal state. Throughout the primary and caucus season, he did poorly among evangelical Christian voters like those who support and attend this school, which bills itself as "training champions for Christ since 1971."
It was founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority, and emerged as a political force during Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential run. Falwell's son Jerry Jr. is now president and chancellor.
Romney wanted to assure audience members Saturday that he shares their values, has lived a good, moral life and is running for president to heal the economy.
"Central to America's rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life," he said.
Though the festive crowd was generally supportive, many continued to express reservations about Romney. Last month, the Liberty Champion, the student newspaper, wrote in a commentary, "Mitt Romney was announced as Liberty's 39th commencement speaker, great -- but he is a Mormon."
Kristine Funk, a Manchester, N.H., preschool teacher present at the graduation, said of Romney, "He's the lesser of two evils. I don't agree with a lot of his positions, but I can't vote for Obama."