The old Mitt Romney would have come to Friday’s gathering of religious conservatives and waxed on about his opposition to abortion, his belief in God and the importance of family values.
The new Mitt Romney only briefly mentioned “the sanctity of human life’’ and cast unemployment as the moral crisis of our time.
His economy-focused pitch at the Faith and Freedom Conference was a sign that the former Massachusetts governor, who officially launched his second bid for the White House on Thursday, has learned from the mistakes of his last campaign.
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Instead of trying to gloss over his previous support for abortion rights and pass himself off as a rock-ribbed social conservative -- as he did in 2008 -- he stuck with the fiscal platform he laid out at his official campaign kickoff the day before in New Hampshire.
He didn’t pander to the heavily evangelical audience, which represents a large slice of the GOP primary electorate. He didn’t defend the health care law he signed that’s been widely compared to the legislation passed under President Obama. He didn’t get knocked off message.
“Those are not bumps. Those are Americans,’’ said Romney, chiding President Obama for his “bumps-on-the-road’’ description of Friday’s disappointing jobs report.
But while Romney drew applause Friday for his indictment of the administration’s economic policies, he was hard pressed to forge an emotional connection with an audience of Christian conservatives, in contrast to the ease and credibility with which some of his rivals for the GOP nomination did.
And so the question mark looming over his front-running status will follow him as he hits the campaign trail in earnest, despite his fundraising might and 2008 experience.
“I think he’s a strong candidate, but I can’t fall in love with him,’’ said Judy Hendrychs, a 69-year-old retiree from central Florida who stressed her opposition to abortion. “It’s not because he’s a Mormon. I just think other candidates are stronger.’’
Nancy Richardson, a 70-year-old retiree from Virginia Beach, sounded a similar note. “He’s not my favorite,’’ she said. “I’d vote for him if he was the nominee, if it came to that.’’
If voters at the conference were looking for a heartthrob, they found it in Michele Bachmann, who addressed the conference Friday morning. The Minnesota congresswoman and founder of the Tea Party Caucus railed against Planned Parenthood and talked breezily about being a foster mother with five, home-schooled children of her own. She asked the audience to join her in prayer.
Romney’s overture to the religious crowd was perfunctory. “We’re united in the love we have for this great country,’’ he said. “We’re united in our belief in the sanctity of human life. We’re united in the importance of marriage between one man and one woman, and we’re united in our belief in America.’’
Haley Barbour, the Mississippi governor who recently ruled out a White House bid, didn’t mention Romney by name but told the crowd not to expect the Republican nominee to agree with them on every issue.
“In politics,’’ Barbour said, “purity is the enemy of victory.’’