LYNCHBURG, Va. — As Liberty University prepares to welcome the first major-party Mormon nominee to its campus on Saturday, a senior Mitt Romney adviser told reporters not to expect him to talk about his faith.
"This isn't a speech about Mormonism," said the adviser during a background press briefing. "The Governor gave a speech about his own faith back at Texas A&M in 2007... He will talk about the big picture of how our Judeo-Christian tradition includes such values as religious freedom. He'll also talk about how trusting in God makes for a good life. But it is not a speech about Mormonism, per se."
Instead, said the adviser, Romney will deliver a more traditional commencement speech, offering advice to the graduating class, sharing personal stories, and hit on common conservative themes including "commitment to family," "personal responsibility," and "the dignity of work."
He will also address, "The fact that marriage is an enduring institution that deserves to be defended," the adviser said.
Many expected Romney to use his speech at Liberty U — the nation's largest evangelical Christian college — as an opportunity to address voters' concerns about his unfamiliar faith. Romney struggled throughout the Republican primary to woo Evangelicals, even as the rest of the party began to fall in line toward the end of the process.
Even now, concerns linger. When Romney's scheduled commencement address was made public, some Liberty students pledged to forego the graduation ceremony in protest, arguing that Romney's church was a "cult." And as BuzzFeed reported earlier today, even those students who are supportive of the Republican's visit have serious qualms about his religion.
But in refusing to wade into a discussion about his faith, the Romney campaign is sticking closely to its 2012 playbook: No matter the setting, no matter the audience, avoid the Mormon question at all costs. The bet is that conservative Christians, when faced with the prospect of four more years of President Obama, will hold their noses and vote for a "cultist."
Besides, there's probably nothing Romney could say in a commencement speech that would undo the firmly entrenched belief here that the Mormon candidate is "unsaved."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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