Mitt Romney Faces the ‘Values Voters’

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Mitt Romney faced a tepid reception when he spoke at the Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C., on Saturday morning. Perhaps the crowd was still coming down from Herman Cain’s rousing Friday barnburner. But the central tension whenever Romney, who is Mormon, addresses an evangelical audience was more pronounced than ever: Can Christian conservatives get past the former governor’s faith?

Organizers placed Romney in an inhospitable lineup. Anti-Mormon American Family Association radio host Bryan Fischer spoke directly after him. It’s not ideal for a presidential contender to share the microphone with a guy who called Norway shooter Anders Breivik an “accurate” thinker and said gays created the Nazi party. Fischer argued on AFA radio just two weeks ago that First-Amendment rights should only apply to Christians, and especially not for Mormons, whom he says still believe in polygamy “just like the Muslims do.”

But Romney handled the air of anti-Mormon sentiment deftly. He began his speech with a “How ‘bout that Bill Bennett?” implicitly nodding to the conservative radio host’s criticism of Mormon “bigotry” in an earlier speech. Romney declined to confront anyone directly, but near the end of his remarks, he noted that “One of the speakers who follows me today has crossed that line.”

If there was any election year when evangelical voters would be willing to move on from Romney’s faith, 2012 might be it. Soaring debt and unemployment have surpassed culture war issues as priorities among most conservatives, and the former are where Romney’s strengths lie. “We’re going to talk about jobs and houses and immigration and foreign policy and America’s role in the world and big stuff,” his strategist Stuart Stevens said earlier this week. And Romney’s biggest applause lines on Saturday came when he humorously needled Obama on the economy. Noting that the President likes to mention that he inherited a recession, Romney said that Obama “forgets to mention that he also inherited a AAA bond rating.”

Romney’s faith has also been a far less controversial topic than it was in the 2008 primary. After some four years of non-stop campaigning, maybe voters have grown accustomed to the idea that Mormons and evangelicals share many values.

The crowd on Saturday seemed to be undecided.When a heckler yelled that Romney supported gay marriage, an audience member jumped to Romney’s defense, shouting, “No he didn’t!” What might have been big applause lines from another speaker–“We must continue to welcome faith in the public square and allow it to flourish”–mostly fell flat.

Speeches aren’t everything. In 2007, Romney narrowly edged out Baptist minister and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee to win the Values Voters straw poll after a similarly cool reception. But in this year’s straw poll, the results of which were announced Saturday afternoon, Ron Paul swept first place with 37% followed by Herman Cain at 23%, Rick Santorum at 16%, and Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry tied at 8%. Romney, meanwhile, garnered a mere 4%. Maybe it’s not his year with evangelicals after all.