CORNWALL, PA (Reuters) - Republican Mitt Romney took time out on Saturday from a five-day tour aimed at shoring up support among small-town voters in battleground states to touch base with another critical party constituency - Christian conservatives - and include some tough talk on U.S. relations with Israel.
Romney, the presumptive nominee to face off against President Barack Obama in November, spoke by satellite to the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, D.C., not long after appearing at a foundry in eastern Pennsylvania.
The candidate changed from “campaign casual” khakis into a dark suit and was filmed in front of his tour bus, emblazoned with patriotic symbols, giving prepared remarks on what he termed societal anchors, including family and the Constitution.
The non-profit social conservative Coalition, founded by long-time conservative activist Ralph Reed and with hundreds of local chapters, opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and supports lower taxation and limited government.
Some evangelical voters have been skeptical about Romney, whose Mormon religion has at times been branded a cult by Christian conservative leaders. During the Republican primaries, many favored former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, an outspoken social conservative and Roman Catholic, over Romney.
Those Santorum supporters will likely not gravitate to President Obama in November: the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s website portrays an angry Obama and the slogan “Stop Obama’s War on Religion.” But the Romney campaign wants to make sure conservatives don’t merely sit out this year’s elections.
Romney’s comments veered from his usual talking points on the economy into social issues. He said, for example, that young people “should get married before they have children.”
And he singled out Obama’s decision to mandate contraceptive coverage by health care plans, including those provided by religious institutions, as an attack on religious freedom.
Romney got applause when he said he would be “the opposite” on U.S. relations with Israel and Iran, to President Obama. “He’s almost sounded like he’s more frightened that Israel might take military action than he’s concerned that Iran might become nuclear,” Romney said.
In the small town of Weatherly, population about 2,600, Romney promoted his small-government, lower tax platform to a crowd of about 500, including many registered Republicans.
It is unclear if Romney will win over new supporters on the tour, but his appearances in locales that rarely see presidential contenders could help energize his base in an election that could be won or lost by a razor-thin margin.
“I‘m planning to vote against President Obama,” said Barb Cliff, a hospital CEO from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, who said Romney presents “the best vision for the country.”
Some of the crowd said they had been aware of Romney since his work in turning around the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. That stint helped catapult the venture capitalist into the national spotlight, to the Massachusetts governor’s mansion and to two runs for the White House.
Romney received a tour and briefing at the Weatherly Casting and Machine Co, a specialty alloy foundry, from owner Mike Lieb. In his remarks there he lauded Lieb for at one point taking out a second mortgage to pump money into the company - and took a stab at the president.
“What I hear from people who create jobs is different from what I hear from a person who wants to hang onto his job,” Romney said, a reference to incumbent Obama’s hope to stay in the White House after the November 6 election.
Inside the facility, foundry manager Matt Farrow said business was booming. Many of the company’s products are sold to natural gas drillers and for dredging and mining operations.
The unionized factory - workers belong to the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics & Allied Workers International Union - is currently running three shifts a day seven days a week.
A number of other factories in the area, including a steel plant, closed in the 1970s or 1980s. Romney supporters said they hoped he could do what decades of federal and state administrations had not done - bring jobs back to the area.
The Romney campaign on Saturday shifted the location of a planned stop at a Wawa gas station/convenience store in Quakertown because a crowd of demonstrators had gathered.
“I understand we had a surrogate over there (former Pennsylvania Governor and Democrat Ed Rendell) so we decided to come to a different place,” Romney said to shoppers inside another Quakertown Wawa.
The candidate bought a meatball sandwich for lunch.
Democratic activists are trailing Romney’s five-day “Every Town Counts” tour with their own “Middle Class Under the Bus” tour, appearing at campaign events to make counter-arguments.
About twenty protesters caught up with Romney at his final stop for the day, at the Cornwall Iron Furnace historic site, holding signs supporting public education and women’s rights.
A Quinnipiac University survey this week showed Obama is ahead of Romney 46 percent to 40 percent in Pennsylvania, with support from women and independent voters. The poll, taken June 5 to 10, had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Reporting By Ros Krasny; editing by Todd Eastham