Republican White House challenger Mitt Romney, wooing social conservatives, has adamantly rejected same-sex marriage and trumpeted his belief in Christian values and the family.
Days after Barack Obama became the first US president to back gay and lesbian marriage, Mr Romney told university graduates the “pre-eminence of the family” remains at the heart of the principles that underpin the nation.
“As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate,” the presumptive Republican nominee told the class of 2012 at Liberty University, the biggest Christian campus in the US.
“So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman,” he said, raising a loud cheer from a crowd of more than 25,000 — the biggest so far in this campaign season.
Mr Romney, who did not directly refer to gays or lesbians, had previously voiced opposition to gay marriage, although he has also said same-sex couples should have some rights such as child adoption.
But this speech was his unbowed rebuttal in a week dominated by Obama’s landmark endorsement of gay marriage, and the Republican hopeful sought to set himself apart from the president in the run up to November’s election.
“Central to America’s rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life,” he said in a speech punctuated with references to God.
“Take those away, or take them for granted, and so many things can go wrong in a life. Keep them strong, and so many things will go right.”
Mr Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and venture capitalist with a personal fortune estimated at more than $250m, also moved to rebut his image among some voters as a corporate suit who puts profit before people.
“I have never once regretted missing a business opportunity so that I could be with my children and grandchildren,” he said, while also referring to his wife Ann, a homemaker who is often by his side on the campaign trail.
“Among the things in life that can be put off, being there when it matters most isn’t one of them,” Mr Romney said, while seeking to tap into a sense among many evangelicals and the Catholic church establishment that Obama is riding roughshod over the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion.
“It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of blessed with,” said Mr Romney, a Mormon.
Virginia is a key battleground in the Nov 6 presidential election.
Liberty, the largest evangelical university in the world, is an essential campaign stop for Republican presidential candidates, having previously hosted Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush.
Many core Republicans remain wary of Romney, with critics dismissing him as a moderate.
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