Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney largely bypassed the red-meat issues of abortion and gay marriage while addressing a gathering of social conservatives Friday evening, opting instead to frame the nation's "moral crisis" in terms of rising unemployment, soaring debt and loss of economic opportunity.
"Sixteen million Americans are out of work or have stopped looking for work," said Romney, who officially launched his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination one day before. "Make no mistake. This is a moral tragedy -- a moral tragedy of epic proportion."
Romney spoke for roughly 15 minutes before nearly one thousand evangelical activists at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's annual conference in Washington, D.C., where he struck a markedly different tone than several of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, several of whom employed fiery rhetoric to decry the moral crises represented by abortion and same-sex marriage.
Romney didn't ignore those hot-button topics entirely, assuring the evangelical crowd in the opening minutes of his speech that "We stand united" on issues like "the sanctity of human life" and "marriage between one man and one woman." But from that point forward Romney spoke with laser-like focus on the economy, sticking to a topic of strength while tailoring his campaign message to the socially conservative crowd by framing the country's economic decline as a moral dilemma as well as a fiscal one.
"The debt we are amassing as a nation and passing on to our children is immoral," Romney said. "It was once said that we should pass a torch to the next generation. Instead, we are passing on an unpaid bill."
The former Massachusetts governor's fiscally focused speech was peppered with direct and frequent assaults on President Obama, whom Romney accused of implementing policies that worsened, rather than relieved, the country's economic anxieties. Romney said Obama's economic recovery plan relied on "European solutions" -- such as the 2009 stimulus package -- that have done little to pull America out of recession. "Barack Obama has failed the American people," Romney said.
Romney's speech was as notable for what it omitted as for what it included. He checked off several key boxes early on, voicing his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, but failed to address two looming elephants in the room: his Mormon faith and the Massachusetts health care law he championed, which has drawn frequent and unfavorable comparisons to Obama's federal program.
Difficulties in Iowa, a state where evangelical voters make up an important part of the Republican constituency, prompted Romney to deliver an address about his religion when he ran for the GOP 2008 presidential nomination. There was some speculation that Romney might seize a conference of religious conservatives as an ideal forum to address lingering concerns over his faith. Yet Romney's speech was remarkably areligious -- aside from several references to "moral" imperatives, there was not a single reference to any faith or higher power.
But Romney's lack of religious rhetoric, as well as his decision to gloss over health care reform while listing his accomplishments in Massachusetts, underscored his determination to stick to his chosen message: jobs and the economy.
Unlike his presidential rivals, Romney chose not to toss rhetorical red meat to the crowd -- and consequently, was the only candidate whose speech did not receive a standing ovation. But Romney learned from his 2008 defeat that he can't be everything to everyone. Romney's focus this time around is on winning the war rather than fighting every small battle, and tonight's speech was the strongest indication yet that the only ovation Romney's aiming for is one in Tampa next summer.