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Evangelicals slowly warming up to Romney

It wasn’t exactly the belly of the beast Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visited recently on a picture-perfect commencement day at “the world’s largest Christian university.” But his appearance was a test as to whether the conservative school, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, would embrace a devout Mormon. And Romney passed.

The more than 30,000 assembled in Liberty University’s stadium to hear his commencement address not only applauded him when he proclaimed that marriage was a relationship between one man and one woman but also when he appealed to a “common purpose” in pursuit of shared goals, regardless of theological differences.

Romney was introduced by Mark DeMoss, president of Atlanta-based public relations firm DeMoss Group and also a member of Liberty’s board of trustees and a Romney adviser.

DeMoss said of Romney: “I suspect I won’t agree with Mitt Romney on everything. But I will tell you this – I trust him. I trust him to do the right thing, to do the moral thing, to do what’s best for our country. I trust his character, his integrity, his moral compass, his judgment and his perfect decency. And finally, I trust his values – for I am convinced they mirror my own.”

That’s a better endorsement than some evangelicals give one another.

In an interview after the commencement, I talked with Romney about his campaign and about the recent Washington Post story that claimed he took part in a bullying incident in 1965. I wanted to know why he didn’t hit back harder at the charges.

Romney said simply, “That’s probably not my nature. We’ll see how the campaign develops over time. We may take on some of those issues. But probably our best course will be that the president wanted to turn around the economy and he hasn’t, and that it is bumping along the bottom.”

I also asked him about the unfulfilled promises from previous Republican presidents to reduce the size and cost of government.

“We are going to have to dramatically cut back on the scale and influence of government, or else we’re going to become a second-tier nation, unable to defend ourselves and defend our liberties and the liberties of friends around the world,” he said. “I’ve learned it’s not just about slowing down the growth of programs, because what will happen four or eight years later is someone will just raise the growth of these programs and we’ll be right back to where we started. If you’re going to change things you must eliminate programs.”

Romney said many programs that “are still good” can be sent to the states “and then grow the funding at the rate of inflation” – or in the case of Medicaid, food stamps or workforce training programs, “maybe inflation plus 1 percent.” He predicts that if structural changes are made, federal spending will be reduced to 20 percent of gross domestic product, rather than the 25 percent it is today.

Good ideas, but not new for Republicans. The challenge will be getting them through Congress, which has been difficult even when it is run by Republicans.

While evangelical voters blew hot and cold on other GOP candidates during the early primaries, Romney’s reception at Liberty University was a sign they are slowly warming to the idea of him as president.