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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’

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Romney leads a crowd in Dayton, Ohio, in a moment of silence (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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 "noncommittal."

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 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, 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."

[Related: Romney's Liberty University speech will emphasize family, criticize Obama]

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."

But Romney's outreach didn't score him many votes. In the early primary and caucus states four years ago, most conservative Christians backed Mike Huckabee, and Romney eventually conceded the nomination to John McCain.

The lesson, according to Romney aides, was that he had invested too much time and effort wooing a constituency that would always be skeptical of him, instead of focusing on his strength as a former leader in the private sector who could turn around the economy—a shift that some conservative activists have described as an overcorrection.

"Like all people running campaigns, they are generals refighting the last war. They went out there and really did an aggressive outreach to these people in 2008, and in their mind, they didn't really see a return on that investment," says Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition executive director, who now heads up the Faith and Freedom Coalition. "I think they decided with this campaign to just go out there and be who they are, and if they get some evangelical voters, great. I'm not going to be critical of that, but it would have been better if they had had a little more of a muscular outreach."

But, Reed added, "There's plenty of time to fix that."

In addition to dispatching the candidate himself to private meetings, the Romney campaign has been sending surrogates, including Buchanan and Peter Flaherty, a Romney aide who is in charge of outreach to social conservatives, to meetings with activists in recent weeks. The campaign recently hired Michael Biundo, Rick Santorum's former campaign manager, to work on outreach to skeptical Republicans. Their talking points include emphasizing the party's shared goal of defeating Obama this fall.

But that argument isn't working on everybody—at least not yet. As Buchanan acknowledges, there are some Republicans who are still upset that Romney—and not Santorum, Newt Gingrich or another 2012 candidate—is the party's presidential nominee.

That includes Iowa radio host Steve Deace, a longtime Romney critic who endorsed Gingrich in the primary and now says the former Massachusetts governor still hasn't quite won his vote. He told Yahoo News that at least one Romney surrogate had reached out to him in recent weeks.

"There will be plenty of conservatives who eventually hold their nose to vote against Obama," Deace said in an email. "But the fact the Republican establishment's whole argument is you'll take whatever crap sandwich we serve you because the other side is a brood of vipers just illustrates why, after Romney loses this fall, there will be all-out civil war in this party."

At least one prominent conservative leader declined to be interviewed about Romney. Reached by phone, the Republican activist, who declined to be quoted by name, acknowledged he "probably" would have been critical of the presumptive GOP nominee a month ago, but now he is trying to withhold judgment.

"People are in a wait-and-see mode," the activist said.

Buchanan admits she hears similar sentiments, but she says people in the movement are starting to be "more open" to Romney.

"It usually takes a little time for people to get over the anger or resentment or disappointment of losing a primary and having your candidate not win," she says. "People are taking a closer look at Mitt Romney, and they are going to see that he does represent their values and their concerns in a very meaningful way."

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But it's still unclear how far Romney will go in whipping up enthusiasm among Christian conservatives. During the primary, Romney tried to keep the focus solely on the economy. But as Santorum crept up in the polls, Romney briefly began to pack into his stump speech several lines emphasizing his pro-life credentials and his opposition to same sex marriage—only to abandon them.

This week, activists, including Ralph Reed, suggested Obama's decision to come out in favor of same-sex marriage, was a surprise "gift" to the Romney campaign. But Romney didn't mention gay marriage on the stump—and his advisers gave conflicting answers as to whether they would make it an issue in the fall campaign.

Speaking on MSNBC, former George W. Bush adviser Ed Gillespie, who joined the Romney campaign last month as a senior adviser, replied "sure" when asked if Romney would campaign on the issue. But Buchanan suggested gay marriage would "not be a dominant issue" in the campaign and suggested Romney would stick to talking about jobs and the economy.

"Social conservatives ask me all the time why he doesn't talk more about these issues," Buchanan told Yahoo News. "Because that isn't a smart campaign when most people want to know what you are going to do to turn this country around. That doesn't mean you don't talk about other things, but this race is about the economy. That's where this president's record has failed miserably."

There are some hopeful signs for Romney among white evangelical voters, a crucial voting bloc for Republicans this fall. A Public Religion Research Institute poll released Thursday found Romney with a nearly 50-point lead over Obama among evangelicals—68 percent to Obama's 19 percent.

But as the Los Angeles Times noted, Romney's support among evangelicals is less than what exit polls found for McCain in 2008 (73 percent) and George W. Bush in 2004 (79 percent).

"The vice presidential pick, the convention and the acceptance speech are going to be critical," Reed told Yahoo News. "If those go well, Romney will be fine."

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