Mitt Romney will speak at next week's commencement at Liberty University, an addresss that follows the university's history of politically conservative speakers. For Romney, the speech is an outreach to conservative Christians who have been wary of him, both for his political positions and his Mormon faith. For Liberty, Romney will continue a long line of speakers who find common ground with Liberty on conservative politics, not religious affiliation.
The Liberty speech is one of many events Romney has planned that will allow him to shore up support with conservatives while beginning to sound themes for the general election. Two weeks ago, Romney spoke at the National Rifle Association meeting. While Romney tipped his hat to second amendment rights activists, he spent most of the speech on taxes and the economy.
Romney is likely to follow a similar strategy at Liberty, one that commencement speakers John McCain (2006) and George Bush (1990) used to avoid hot button social issues to focus on foreign policy and other issues.
Mark DeMoss, a senior advisor to the Romney campaign who often comments on the relationship between Romney and evangelicals is also a Liberty alumnus and a member of the university's board of trustees. DeMoss defended the choice of Romney after some students used Facebook to protest having a Mormon speak at commencement.
"We have had a Jewish commencement speaker [Ben Stein], we have had a Catholic commencement speaker [Newt Gingrich], and so, I think people are certainly entitled to their opinion. Social Media certainly provides an outlet for people's opinions, but I think it is a great thing for the university," DeMoss told CNN.
Romney is not even the first Mormon to speak at commencement. Two years ago, Glenn Beck gave the address to Liberty's graduates.
Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty's chancellor, said, "This will be a historic event for Liberty University reminiscent of the visits of Governor, and then presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan to Liberty's campus in 1980 and of President George H.W. Bush who spoke at Liberty's 1990 Commencement ceremony."
In 2000, McCain publicly distanced himself from Jerry Falwell Sr., calling him one of the "agents of intolerance." Six years later, McCain spoke at Liberty University's commencement as he prepared for another run for the presidency.
Over the past decade, the Liberty University commencement speakers have been a who's who of conservative politics: Karl Rove, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, Ben Stein, and Glenn Beck. Chuck Norris, who received attention for his active support of Mike Huckabee's presidential run, spoke in 2008.
In addition to Romney, evangelist Luis Palau will also speak during at the university's baccalaureate service Friday.
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