Romney address at Liberty Univ. sparks controversy

(CBS News) WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney is to deliver the commencement address Saturday at Virginia's Liberty University, the largest evangelical college in the country.

His visit has stirred debate in the conservative Christian community, because some believe his Mormon faith is a cult.

But Romney is hoping the speech helps him win over those who are skeptical of his beliefs - and his conservative credentials.

President Obama stepped right into the controversy over same sex marriage this week.

But it appears controversy over religion and politics is the last thing Romney's looking for at Liberty University.

During the Republican primary campaign, Romney struggled to gain the support of evangelical voters, in part because of his Mormon faith, which some evangelical leaders have called a cult.

So it was no surprise that Romney would be facing some skeptics in the Liberty University audience.

"I think there's a lot of mixed emotions," says Liberty University student Jamie Goss. "Some people are, like, oh, I wish we would have had, like, a Christian speaker come."

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More than 700 comments, some critical, were posted on the school's Facebook page after the selection of Romney was announced.

Still, National Journal White House Correspondent Major Garrett said on "CBS This Morning: Saturday" he doesn't think there's any reason for the Romney campaign to be concerned.

"Look at the poll that just came out this week from Pew Research facility," Garrett said. "Mitt Romney is running 53 percentage points ahead of Barack Obama among evangelicals who intend to vote in November. At this stage of the campaign -- it's earlier than the stage that John McCain was polled on this, John McCain was at 36 percentage points over Barack Obama in 2008. And George Bush, when he won in 2004 over John Kerry, got 57 percent more of evangelical vote than John Kerry.

"So, right now, Mitt Romney, though Mormon, though there are skeptics in the evangelical community who are not exactly fired up about his campaign, nevertheless is running nearly as well as George W. Bush did in 2004 and much farther ahead among evangelicals than John McCain in 2008. That's a very positive sign for the Romney campaign."

To see the full Garrett interview, click on this video:

Romney was expected to reach out to evangelicals by speaking generally of Judeo-Christian values, but advisers say the address will not in any way be a speech about Mormonism.

According to excerpts released by the campaign, it will be highly personal, with stories about his 18 grandchildren and how he "never once regretted missing any experience or opportunity in business" to be with his wife and five sons.

Romney advisers say he also will avoid explicit mention of same-sex marriage.

In an interview Friday with WBTV, the CBS affiliate in Charlotte, N.C., he repeated his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, but then added, "I just don't think that this becomes a hot political issue dividing our nation. Instead, I believe we should respect the viewpoints of various people and move on."

Romney says the campaign's focus should be on the economy.

But many conservative Christians are far from being ready to move on. In fact, on Sunday, evangelical pastors across the nation are expected to make their feelings about gay marriage very clear from the pulpit.

To see Chip Reid's report, click on the video in the player above.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.

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