Romney's Liberty University speech to woo GOP skeptics: ‘Social conservatives ask me all the time why he doesn't talk more about these issues'

ByABC News
May 11, 2012, 2:37 PM

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Mitt Romney is used to doing most of the talking when he's out scouting for votes, but this time, he mainly just listened.

For more than an hour last month, the presumptive Republican nominee met with about a dozen prominent social conservatives who have been openly wary about his bid for the White House.

"I know that some of you might not have been with me, but I want you to know we want you aboard, and we want your ideas," Romney told the group, according to two participants who declined to be named discussing specifics of the meeting.

Romney delivered a briefer than usual version of his stump speech, emphasizing his ability to turn the economy around. But then, he sat back and allowed his small audience to let loose.

He responded to queries about potential openings on the Supreme Court, assuring attendees he would appoint judges like Chief Justice John Roberts. And after one attendee raised concerns about his willingness and ability to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law, Romney firmly insisted he would.

The mood among the visitors, according to one participant, was "polite" but "non-committal."

The powwow, not listed on Romney's public schedule, took place in a hotel conference room in Washington and was similar to many sit-downs the former Massachusetts governor has quietly held in recent months aimed at convincing skeptical social conservatives to unite behind his bid to defeat President Obama.

"He gives them respect," Bay Buchanan, a Romney adviser who has been working to soothe tensions between the likely GOP nominee and wary Republicans, told Yahoo News. "Some people have been skeptical, but most are very receptive. He's there to listen to them and does a lot of listening at these things. I don't know how he could do it any better."

Romney will make perhaps his most overt appeal yet to Christian conservatives on Saturday, when he delivers the commencement address at Liberty University, the evangelical school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

The Romney campaign argues—and most conservative activists agree—that the party's overriding desire to defeat Obama will prompt even the most skeptical Republicans to line up behind the party's nominee. But the danger is that conservatives won't turn out to volunteer, write campaign checks or stoke grassroots enthusiasm for Romney.

"Most Republicans are going to turn out for Romney because he's running against Barack Obama," says Richard Land, the head of policy for the Southern Baptist Convention. "But he also needs an energized base that will help him get out the vote… Right now, (social conservatives) are his to lose, but he could drive them away."

The biggest gripe among social conservatives is not Romney's Mormon faith or his shifting position on social issues like abortion, but rather his campaign's singular focus on the economy. Many complain he isn't talking enough about social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.

It's a shift from the 2008 campaign, when Romney was criticized for being almost too aggressive in his efforts to woo conservative activists. During that campaign, Romney hosted several evangelical leaders in the kitchen of his Massachusetts home. Afterward, Romney mailed each participant a wooden chair featuring a small brass plaque with an engraving of his signature and a promise of a seat at "our table."