LYNCHBURG, Va. -- It wasn't exactly the belly of the beast Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visited recently on a picture-perfect commencement day at "the world's largest Christian University," but his appearance was a test as to whether the conservative school, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, would embrace a devout Mormon. And Romney passed.
The more than 30,000 assembled in Liberty University's stadium to hear his commencement address not only applauded him when he proclaimed that marriage was a relationship between one man and one woman but also when he appealed to a "common purpose" in pursuit of shared goals, regardless of theological differences.
While President Obama is all about coolness, Romney is the sober grown-up. Republicans support Romney not because of his personality, but because he credibly addresses our shared critical challenges.
Mark DeMoss, president of the DeMoss Group, an Atlanta-based public relations firm, and also a member of Liberty's board of trustees and a Romney adviser, introduced Romney. DeMoss' late father, Arthur S. DeMoss, was a generous donor to the university in its early days. DeMoss said of Romney, "I suspect I won't agree with Mitt Romney on everything -- but I will tell you this -- I trust him. I trust him to do the right thing, to do the moral thing, to do what's best for our country. I trust his character, his integrity, his moral compass, his judgment and his perfect decency. And finally, I trust his values -- for I am convinced they mirror my own."
That's a better endorsement than some evangelicals give each other.
In an interview following the commencement, I talked with Romney about his campaign and about the recent Washington Post story that claimed he took part in a bullying incident in 1965. I wanted to know why he didn't hit back harder at the charges and why he hasn't challenged the Post for not delving deeper into the president's past. Romney said simply, "That's probably not my nature.
"We'll see how the campaign develops over time. We may take on some of those issues, but probably our best course will be that the president wanted to turn around the economy and he hasn't and that it is bumping along the bottom. A lot of people like him. You can't forget the fact that a lot of people who voted for him last time I need to have vote for me this time."
When I asked him about the unfulfilled promises from previous Republican presidents to reduce the size and cost of government, it produced his longest answer: "I'm in this to get America right. I'm absolutely convinced that the future of liberty, not just for us, but for many in the world, depends on America changing its ways. And we are going to have to dramatically cut back on the scale and influence of government, or else we're going to become a second-tier nation, unable to defend ourselves and defend our liberties and the liberties of friends around the world.
"I've learned it's not just about slowing down the growth of programs, because what will happen four or eight years later is someone will just raise the growth of these programs and we'll be right back to where we started. If you're going to change things you must eliminate programs."
Romney says many programs that "are still good" can be sent to the states "and then grow the funding at the rate of inflation," or in the case of Medicaid or Food Stamps, or workforce training programs, "maybe inflation plus one percent." He predicts if structural changes are made, federal spending will be reduced to "20 percent of GDP, rather than the 25 percent it is today."
Good ideas, but not new for Republicans. The challenge will be getting them through Congress, which even when it is run by Republicans has been difficult.
While evangelical voters blew hot and cold on other GOP candidates during the early primaries, Romney's reception at Liberty University is a sign they are slowly warming to the idea of him as president.