The problems Mitt Romney had in winning evangelicals from Rick Santorum have spilled over into the first days of the general election after backlash erupted because of a speech planned at Liberty University.
The school, founded by Jerry Falwell, recently announced Romney would deliver a commencement speech during May 12's graduation. But Liberty University supporters reacted with hundreds of comments on its Facebook page decrying Romney's selection as a betrayal because he is a Mormon. The school's own courses teach that Mormonism contradicts Christian teachings.
CNN reports today that Liberty University has deleted the comments and is downplaying them as coming from misinformed people unrelated to the school.
Falwell, who died in May 2007 just before Romney's last run for president got into gear, included Mormons in the Moral Majority, a socially conservative group he also founded. He sought a broad political coalition of people with similar values, even if they weren't Christian.
Falwell reportedly met with Romney and his wife in 2006 where a witness said Falwell told them, "I don't have a problem with your being a Mormon."
Romney spent the entire Republican primary in a fight with former Pennsylvania senator Santorum in part over born-again and evangelical votes. Anywhere that exit polls showed a majority of voters from that background, Romney lost the state.
He seemed to declare the primary season effectively over in a victory speech on Tuesday after winning a string of states. So the Liberty University speech, intended to improve his relationship with evangelicals, is among the first controversies of what Romney has declared to be the general election and resurrects awareness of another of the candidate's weaknesses.
Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese, a co-chairman of the Obama campaign, had warned that Romney's weakness with Santorum's base could permanently drag him to the right.
But Romney's challenges with evangelicals don't so far seem to have hurt him with religious voters more broadly. A Gallup poll released today shows Romney leading Obama among "very religious" voters by 17 points. Gallup points out that comports with a traditional strength for the Republican Party that has long been developing. Meanwhile, Romney loses to Obama among the "moderately religious" by 14 points and among the "nonreligious" by 31 points.
Obama not only leads Romney by seven points in the latest general election Gallup poll, but also he has reached the crucial 50% job approval mark — which any incumbent president since Dwight Eisenhower has reached before being reelected.