LYNCHBURG, Virginia Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney sought on Saturday to calm fears that his Mormon faith would be an obstacle to evangelical Christian voters, stressing shared conservative values while acknowledging religious differences.
In a speech at conservative Christian Liberty University - where it is taught that Mormonism is a cult - Romney stressed their common goal of service to God and declared his opposition to gay marriage, a position essential for winning the majority of evangelicals in November.
"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," the presumptive Republican nominee said in a commencement speech, addressing his Mormon faith.
"Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview," said Romney to warm applause. Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, view themselves as Christians.
Romney went right at the latest hot-button issue, bringing much of the audience to its feet in cheers by declaring: "Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman."
Many students and parents said that while they are wary of Romney's religion, they would rather he occupy the White House than President Barack Obama who announced his support for same-sex marriage this week.
When Romney was announced as speaker, a shout from the crowd of "Beat Obama!" rang out.
The address was a test for Romney of support among evangelicals, particularly in a swing state like Virginia, and came after a difficult week in which he was accused of being a bully at high school in the 1960s.
The announcement last month that Romney would speak at Liberty, founded by the late preacher Jerry Falwell, caused an uproar.
Liberty teaches that Mormonism is a cult, and university officials took down a commencement Facebook page after it was flooded with hundreds of posts objecting to Romney's appearance.
But some in the large crowd of 34,000 people on Saturday said they were prepared to look past his Mormonism and see Romney as the candidate with the best message on jobs as well as family values.
"I don't believe in the Latter-Day Saints, but I don't have a problem voting for Mitt Romney," said John Gambrino, of Stafford, Virginia, who watched his son graduate.
Current Liberty chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. told parents, staff and students that "we are electing a commander-in-chief, not a pastor-in-chief."
Romney encouraged students to stand by their faith. "Culture - what you believe, what you value, how you live - matters," he said.
Often derided by conservatives as too moderate, Romney would generate enthusiasm from those on the right of his party if they become convinced he can defeat Obama.
Romney will need Christian groups' votes - and organizational heft - with polls pointing toward a close contest with Obama in November. He can get them if he keeps to a socially conservative message, and does not take their vote for granted, strategists say.
Josh Gonzalez, a biblical studies major from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said he was concerned when Romney was announced as the speaker at Liberty.
Gonzalez praised the speech, saying it was "very classy of (Romney) recognizing we have two different beliefs."
So did Romney earn Gonzalez's vote?
"In all honesty, I'll have to pray about it," he said.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Jackie Frank)