(Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder)
Presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will deliver the commencement address at Liberty University – his first appearance at the conservative evangelical school founded by Christian Right leader Jerry Falwell.
The Lynchburg, Va.-based school announced today that the former Massachusetts governor, who is a Mormon, will be the speaker at its 2012 commencement ceremony on May 12.
"We are delighted that Governor Romney will join us to celebrate Commencement with Liberty's 2012 graduates," said Liberty Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr., in a statement Thursday. "This will be a historic event for Liberty University reminiscent of the visits of Governor, and then presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan to Liberty's campus in 1980 and of President George H.W. Bush who spoke at Liberty's 1990 Commencement ceremony."
Liberty University is no stranger to hosting presidential candidates; Texas Gov. Rick Perry spoke at the school last September when he was still in the GOP presidential race and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) delivered a speech there in 2006 ahead of his White House run.
Notably, however, news of Romney speaking at the largest evangelical university in the world was released just a week after former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum suspended his campaign. Last November, front-runner Romney declined to join the Thanksgiving Family Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, even though all the other major candidates attended to woo the evangelical Christian electorate represented there ahead of the Iowa caucuses.
Romney's upcoming speech at Liberty University – which is expecting some 48,000 graduates and guests for its 39th Commencement ceremony – is seen as an effort to win over the evangelical vote and consolidate his base now that his greatest challenge to becoming the nominee – Santorum – has been removed.
Thus far, Santorum – who was mostly seen as the evangelical candidate-of-choice after powerful evangelical leaders, including Dr. James Dobson, supported him – has not given his endorsement to Romney.
In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 72 percent of white evangelicals said they would vote for Romney over President Obama. But only 27 percent of white evangelical Republican voters said they enthusiastically support Romney as the party's nominee. Half of white evangelical Republican voters said they will back Romney with reservations, the poll found.