6:46am

Sun October 9, 2011
Politics

Values Voters Lukewarm, But Romney Presses On

Originally published on Sun October 16, 2011 9:50 am

Social conservatives have wrapped up a two-day Values Voter Summit in Washington. Their goal is to keep the focus on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, even as the economy tops the list of concerns for most voters.

In a straw poll for GOP 2012 presidential hopefuls, Texas Congressman Ron Paul was the winner, but much of the talk of the conference was about former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is viewed by many in the movement as soft on social issues.

Romney landed in sixth place in the straw poll, garnering just 4 percent of the votes cast. For the former governor, it's a measure of the cool relationship he's always had with social conservatives. They haven't forgotten that he once supported abortion rights even though now he campaigns on a pro-life platform as he did Saturday.

"I will nominate judges who know the difference between personal opinion and law," Romney said. "It is long past time for the Supreme Court to return the issue of abortion back to the states by overturning Roe v. Wade."

That line was cheered, but overall the reception for Romney was mostly just polite.

Romney's Mormon religion was also an issue with some at the summit. On Friday, another speaker, Pastor Robert Jeffress of Dallas, endorsed Rick Perry and called Mormonism a cult and Romney a "non-Christian."

Romney did not address that during his speech, but he did criticize another speaker on the schedule.

"We should remember that decency and civility are values, too. One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line, I think," he said.

Romney was talking about Bryan Fisher of the American Family Association. Fischer – who has a radio show and an Internet presence — often sparks controversy, like in a recent Web video where he singles out Mormonism and says the First Amendment does not apply to non-Christians.

Fischer's speech to the conference did not contain such provocative moments, and afterward he took offense at Romney's comment.

"I thought it was tasteless and impolite. So I think that shows a lack of respect for the people here," Fischer said.

Romney's goal at the Values Voter Summit seemed to be to present himself to the voters at the summit as an acceptable alternative, not in the primaries but in the general election. If he wins the nomination with the help of fiscal conservatives, social conservatives hopefully will be there for him in a general election against President Obama.

"I can't say that he energized me, but he's got a lot of experience," said 63-year-old Karen Rose of Asthabula, Ohio. "And so, you know, you have to think about what's going to appeal to a broad part of our country. Anybody is better than Obama."

Even a statement like that is a victory of sorts for Romney.

Though the conference is dominated by evangelicals, Rep. Ron Paul won with 37 percent of the 1,983 votes cast in the straw poll. He won mostly with help from young people and college students who came just to vote for him. Second place went to Atlanta businessman Herman Cain with 23 percent.

Though he finished ahead of Romney's fourth place finish, the other perceived frontrunner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, continued the slump he's been in for a few weeks by receiving only 8 percent of the vote.

The events organizers on Saturday said that Romney and Perry's standing in the straw poll shows they each have a lot of work to do. But for Romney, a single-digit finish may be just fine as long as he's not made any more enemies in the process.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. And we begin with the latest in the Republican race for the White House. Social conservatives have wrapped up the Values Voter Summit here in Washington, D.C. Their goal is to keep the focus on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, even as the economy tops the list of concerns for most voters. Texas Congressman Ron Paul was the winner of the summit's straw poll with 37 percent of the vote. But much of the talk of this year's conference was about former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and his Mormon religion. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: First the straw poll: 1,983 votes cast - and the winner, Ron Paul, once again performing far better among conference attendees than he does in polling of likely Republican voters. Paul spoke to the conference yesterday morning.

Representative RON PAUL: There's a whole generation of Americans right now rising up and saying we were on the right track at one time. Let's get back on that track. Let's restore liberty to this country and prosperity and peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

GONYEA: This conference is dominated by evangelicals, but Paul won with help from young people and college students who came just to vote for him. He got 37 percent in the straw poll. Second place went to Atlanta businessman Herman Cain with 23 percent. Way down in the pack were the two perceived front-runners in the race. Texas Governor Rick Perry got just 8 percent; Mitt Romney 4 percent. For Perry, it continues a slump he's been in for a few weeks. For Romney, it's a measure of the cool relationship he's always had with social conservatives. They haven't forgotten that he once supported abortion rights even though now he campaigns on a pro-life platform, as he did yesterday.

MITT ROMNEY: I will nominate judges who know the difference between personal opinion and law. It is long past time...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: It is long past time for the Supreme Court to return the issue of abortion back to the states by overturning Roe v. Wade.

GONYEA: That line was cheered, but overall the reception for Romney was mostly just polite. Romney's Mormon religion was also an issue with some here. On Friday, another speaker, Pastor Robert Jeffress of Dallas, endorsed Rick Perry and called Mormonism a cult and Romney a non-Christian. Romney did not address that during his speech, but he did criticize another speaker on the schedule.

ROMNEY: We should remember that decency and civility are values, too. One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line, I think.

GONYEA: He was talking about Bryan Fisher of the American Family Association. Fischer has a radio show and an Internet presence. He often sparks controversy, like with this web video where he singles out Mormonism and says the First Amendment does not apply to non-Christians.

BRYAN FISHER: The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the free exercise of the Christian religion. Mormonism is not an orthodox Christian faith. It's just not.

GONYEA: Fisher's speech to the conference did not contain such provocative moments. Afterward, he took offense at Romney's comment.

FISHER: I thought it was tasteless and impolite. So, I think that shows a lack of respect for the people here.

GONYEA: Romney's goal at the Values Voter Summit seemed to be to present himself as an acceptable alternative for these voters, not in the primaries maybe, but in the general election. If he wins the nomination with the help of fiscal conservatives, then maybe social conservatives will be there for him in a general election against President Obama. In other words, even a statement like this from 63-year-old Karen Rose of Ashtabula, Ohio is a victory of sorts.

KAREN ROSE: I can't say that he energized me, but he's got a lot of experience. And so, you know, you have to think about what's going to appeal to a broad part of our country. Anybody is better than Obama.

GONYEA: The event's organizers yesterday said that Romney and Perry's standings in the straw poll show they each have a lot of work to do. But for Romney, a single-digit finish may be just fine, just as long as he's not made any more enemies in the process. Don Gonyea. NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.