LYNCHBURG, Virginia - Republican Mitt Romney heads to America's largest Christian university this weekend to court young religious conservatives and push family values in the wake of President Barack Obama's gay marriage endorsement.
The presumptive Republican nominee will also urge graduates not to "lose heart" in the face of diminished job prospects when he gives the commencement address Saturday at Liberty University in this small city in central Virginia, according to excerpts of his speech released by the campaign.
Virginia is one the key battlegrounds of the 2012 election, and First Lady Michelle Obama preempted Romney by delivering her own moving commencement speech in the state at a university less than 90 miles (145 kilometers) away.
Romney, taking advantage of his largest student audience of the year, will urge graduates to remain optimistic even though "our current troubles can be discouraging," according to the excerpts.
"Millions wait on the day when there are jobs for everyone willing to work, and opportunities to match your hopes and your goals. But don't lose heart, because that day is coming."
With thousands of Christian graduates in his audience, Romney will touch on the importance of faith and "the commitments of family."
"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," he said.
With Obama's landmark public endorsement of gay marriage, and this week's splashy fundraiser at Hollywood heartthrob George Clooney's home raising an unprecedented US$15 million (S$19 million), it seemed an ideal time for the Republican candidate to tout family values and draw sharp contrasts with his rival.
But "this is not a policy speech," a senior campaign official told reporters on background.
"Marriage isn't the focus of the speech but he will mention the fact that marriage is an enduring institution."
Romney is against gay marriage but says same-sex couples should have some rights including the ability to adopt children.
He steered clear of the issue on Friday, despite addressing supporters in North Carolina, where voters this week overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.