(Reuters) - There are not many Mitt Romney fan clubs at Liberty University.
The Lynchburg, Virginia, school, founded by the late television evangelist Jerry Falwell, is a bastion for conservative Christian thought. Its theology students are taught that Mormonism - Romney’s religion - is a cult.
So for Romney, giving the commencement speech at Liberty on Saturday is a chance to make a heart-to-heart appeal to evangelical Christians who are skeptical of his Mormon faith and conservative credentials.
But more likely, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee will use his commencement address at Liberty on Saturday to try to show evangelicals that he and they have much in common.
The announcement last month that Romney would speak at Liberty caused an uproar. University officials took down a commencement Facebook page after it was flooded with hundreds of posts objecting to Romney’s appearance.
“I would not want to end my studies at a Christian university by being sent into the world at commencement by a Mormon,” Liberty student Sarah Misch told CNN last month.
Beyond its potential as a walk-into-the-lion‘s-den moment, Saturday’s speech gives Romney a unique opportunity to reach out to conservative Christians, whom he often has struggled to impress during the campaign.
The speech comes three days after Romney’s opponent in the November 6 election, Democratic President Barack Obama, declared his support for same-sex marriage. That gives Romney, who opposes gay marriage, a potentially strong talking point in trying to bond with his conservative audience at Liberty.
So how will Romney play it?
Romney’s campaign said in a briefing on Friday that during his speech, Romney would call marriage “an enduring institution that should be defended,” but that the speech would otherwise not be political.
The speech, a day before Mother’s Day, will emphasize the importance of family, along with his familiar campaign theme of the need for a better strategy on jobs and the economy.
“The best cultural assets are values as basic as personal responsibility, the dignity of hard work, and, above all, the commitments of family,” according to an excerpt of the speech released by Romney’s campaign on Friday.
“Take those away, or take them for granted, and so many things can go wrong in a life. Keep them strong, and so many things will go right.”
In short, Romney - who mostly treated Obama’s announcement on gay marriage as a distraction - will continue doing so.
Political strategists say it is probably a good idea to keep religion out of his speech.
“He’s not going there to give a theological speech to the students,” said Alice Stewart, an aide to Republican Rick Santorum, who challenged Romney for the party’s presidential nomination.
Republican strategist Ron Christie said that just by accepting the invitation to address Liberty graduates, Romney was trying to reach out to conservative evangelicals wary of his moderate record as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.
“I think Southern evangelicals will appreciate Governor Romney’s outreach to them,” Christie said. “It would have been easier for Romney to cite scheduling issues to delay such a visit. I predict a more favorable than expected reception.”
Christie’s prediction echoed statements by Liberty Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the university’s Southern Baptist founder, who died in 2007.
The younger Falwell has cited Romney’s appearance as an example of Liberty’s tolerance for views that do not necessarily fall in line with the university’s doctrine.
To students protesting Romney’s commencement invitation, Falwell recently wrote a letter saying, ”When my father traveled the nation speaking at many secular universities, he was often met with boos and hisses by those who held different theological beliefs.
“I am so proud that Liberty students have gained a reputation for treating those whose beliefs are different than their own in a Christ-like manner,” he wrote, citing appearances at Liberty by the late liberal Democratic U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, among others.
Even so, the idea of Romney giving graduates their send-off from Liberty has not gone over well with some students at the university, where Mormonism is considered to be a skewed form of Christianity.
“I can’t support Romney and I am happy I decided not to (attend commencement) this year,” one Liberty student wrote on the graduation Facebook page before it was taken down. “Liberty University should have gotten a Christian to speak, not someone who practices a cult. Shame on you Liberty University.”
Others were more favorable.
A poster to the page identified as Kathy Creech said, “I, for one, am pleased that the future president of the United States will be speaking there!”
Some Republican strategists said that however successful his speech at Liberty, Romney would generate enthusiasm among conservative Christians only if they become convinced he can do one thing: defeat Obama.
Such voters typically lean Republican and, if they are engaged in the election, could give Romney a significant boost in politically divided states such as Virginia and North Carolina that will be especially important on November 6.
“Social and religious conservatives are behind Romney, albeit reluctantly,” Republican strategist Juleanna Glover said. “If they think Romney can beat Obama, they will become far more enthused.”
Editing by David Lindsey and Peter Cooney