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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wooed evangelical Christian voters on Saturday with promises he would protect families, but found his Mormon religion at center stage at a conference of social conservatives.
The former Massachusetts governor, front-runner in the race for his party's nomination to oppose President Barack Obama in 2012, promised at the annual "Values Voter Summit" he would oppose marriage rights for homosexuals and seek to overturn the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision allowing legal abortions.
But Romney, who is viewed skeptically by conservatives for his past support for abortion rights and gay rights, kept to a relatively moderate line as he pushed back at those who denounce his faith.
"Poisonous language does not advance our cause," Romney said. "The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate. The task before us is to focus on the conservative beliefs and the values that unite us -- let no agenda narrow our vision or drive us apart."
Romney's Mormon religion emerged as an issue at the summit, where some participants questioned the validity of Romney's faith, which some evangelicals do not consider a form of Christianity.
The speaker who immediately followed Romney took veiled shots at the candidate's religion and said only an "authentic" Christian should be president.
On Friday, Texas pastor Robert Jeffress, a supporter of Texas Governor Rick Perry, said Republicans should not vote for Romney because he is a Mormon. He described Mormonism as a cult to reporters at the conference after introducing Perry, one of Romney's main rivals for the nomination.
Perry's campaign rejected Jeffress' view. "The governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult," Perry spokesman Mark Miner said.
All of the leading Republican presidential hopefuls made pitches for support at the influential gathering of social and religious conservatives who play a big role in the party's nominating race. The summit is sponsored by the Family Research Council, American Family Association and other evangelical Christian groups.
The event included a non-binding straw poll, which was won by Representative Ron Paul, with 37 percent, or 732, of the 1,983 votes cast. Businessman Herman Cain, who has risen lately to the top tier in national polls, got 23 percent, and former Senator Rick Santorum, whose campaigning stresses socially conservative positions, came third at 16 percent.
Paul seemed to benefit from large numbers of students who came to the conference just for the day on Saturday, paying $75 each to attend and vote in the poll.
Perry came fourth, at 8 percent, the same percentage won by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, although she received 10 fewer votes. Romney was sixth, with 4 percent, or 88 votes.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the straw poll showed "values voters" had not coalesced behind one candidate. "There's still work to do" for Perry and Romney, he said.
"The hearts and minds of the values voters are still there to be won," Perkins said.
Romney's remarks on abortion were more measured than other speakers'. While calling for the end of Roe v. Wade, he said the abortion issue should be decided by the states and acknowledged "strong convictions" on both sides.
"It speaks well of our country that almost all Americans recognize that abortion is a problem. The law may call it a right, but no one ever called it a good," Romney said in a speech focused on his economic and foreign policy proposals.
Romney was followed to the stage by Bryan Fischer, a director of the American Family Association, known for inflammatory remarks against homosexuality and "non-Christian religions," which he has said include Mormonism.
"The next president of the United States needs to be a man ... of sincere authentic genuine Christian faith," he said, in a jab at Romney.
Fischer said the next U.S. president must deny evolution, stop government assistance for the poor, veto any increase in the debt ceiling and "treat homosexual behavior not as a political cause at all, but as a threat to public health."
He called Islam the greatest long-term threat to U.S. liberty. "Every single mosque in America is a potential recruiting or training cell for Islamic terror," Fischer said.
Editing by Peter Cooney