By EMILY SCHULTHEIS | 9/16/12 6:58 AM EDT
Fear of President Barack Obama - not enthusiasm for Mitt Romney - is driving religious conservatives to pull the lever for the GOP nominee this November.
Romney - a former Massachusetts governor who came late to the anti-abortion rights cause - was never a favorite of evangelical voters during the Republican primaries, and their love for him hasn't grown much now that he has officially become their party's standard bearer, as judged by interviews with two dozen conservatives at the Values Voter Summit in Washington this weekend.
But religious conservatives will support Romney because Obama - who endorsed same-sex marriage earlier this year - is anathema to them. And as much as they are lukewarm about Romney, conservatives are thrilled by the GOP nominee's choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate.
"It's not excitement, it is fear - fear of the other guy," said Dolores Taylor, 69, of West Harrison, N.Y., explaining why she will vote for Romney over Obama in November. "Excited doesn't seem to be the right word - I'd say energized, because I'm so angry about what's going on."
Jackie Lewis, a woman from Ashburn, Va., echoed those sentiments, calling the motivating factor behind her decision to back Romney "total fear"of the incumbent.
"We can't take four more years of this," she said.
Fear of a second Obama administration was a centerpiece at this two-day confab of social conservatives a little less than two months before the election. Romney did not attend the conference - and perhaps demonstrating their mixed feelings about the GOP standard bearer, the speakers didn't mention him until halfway through the first day - but Ryan, a fiercely anti-abortion rights Wisconsin lawmaker who is Catholic, did.
Conservatives attending the conference said they worried about a range of things during a possible Obama II, from implementation of the president's health care law, and a move to what they saw as more "socialist" policies to the end of the very values - including the protection of life and traditional marriage - that they came to the summit to support.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), for example, framed the campaign as a battle for the very core of the country, saying another term for Obama would continue the nation's decline.
"This election is going to determine whether or not the very moral fabric of our country will be upheld, or whether it will be torn apart," he said.
Mark Luther, 38, of Kennet, Mo., said Obama will take the nation closer to socialism.
Most GOP voters he knows, he said, "are afraid of a second [Obama] term, so much so that they think if Obama gets reelected, the country will become socialist."
That's how Mary Carbone, 59, from a small town outside Pittsburgh feels, as well.
"I am running across more and more Americans who understand what this administration is trying to do: They're trying to destroy our country, trying to destroy our economy," she said. "A lot of Americans are very angry and very upset about that."
She pointed to the hot mic conversation between Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev earlier this year - in which Obama said he'd have more "flexibility" after he'd been reelected - as "one of the main reasons" she's backing Romney.
Asked who they supported during the GOP primaries, the majority of those interviewed named someone other than Romney. Many were early supporters of Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann, both of whom spoke at the conference, though they all say they're backing Romney now that he's the nominee.
"I would probably lean more toward Rick Santorum. I know it was very close, and I wish he would have had a better shot," said Barb Johnson, 53, of Zeeland, Mich. "I'm more excited about Romney than I was about [2008 GOP nominee John] McCain."
Martha Stott, a 73-year-old woman from Evansville, Ind., said she thinks Romney isn't as accepting of the tea party as were candidates like Santorum.
"I just don't think [Romney] appreciates the tea party like I'd like him to," she said. "He's more out-reaching on [social] issues than Santorum was," referring to the idea that Romney was going further out a limb to convince conservatives that he is one of them.
Romney made a concerted effort to reach out to social conservatives during the 2012 campaign after losing to McCain during the 2008 GOP primaries. Nonetheless, important social conservative leaders like Gary Bauer, Tony Perkins and James Dobson backed Santorum during the 2012 GOP primaries. Though social issues haven't dominated the race, Obama's campaign and Democrats have still tried to tag Romney and Ryan as anti-woman and seeking to turn back the clock on women's issues.
Romney is now trying to appeal to a broad swath of voters in the middle and make up ground with women, with whom he is lagging badly.
Ryan addressed the summit on Friday and bashed the Obama administration for its proposed ruling earlier this year, ordering Catholic hospitals and schools to deliver birth control as part of his health care reform plan. After an uproar, a compromise was reached that required insurance companies to provide contraception instead.
But Romney argues that the White House is waging a "war on religion" and attendees at the conference repeatedly referred to the platform fight at the Democratic convention in Charlotte in which "God" was originally removed from the platform language (Obama intervened to have it restored).
But conservatives interviewed were not only concerned about Obama. They also expressed concern about Romney's demeanor on the stump, wishing he could be more at ease while campaigning.
"Would I like Romney to be more homey, off-the-cuff, like Ronald Reagan? That would be nice," said Jim Vogus, 54, of Redding, Calif., who originally supported Herman Cain.
Still, even if Romney wasn't their first choice, everyone here said that the universal desire to defeat Obama helped rally social conservatives behind the former Massachusetts governor.
"I think all that [GOP division] is now behind us," said David Thomas, 58, of Houston. "While I think [Romney] has independently brought people to him, there has been a whole air of unity to defeat Obama."
Those feelings are consistent with polling on the issue, which shows that Romney supporters are split between backing him on his own merits and backing him to oppose Obama. In a CNN poll released last week, 48 percent of Romney supporters said their vote was for Romney, while 47 percent said they were voting for him as a vote against Obama.
"There are a couple of things [Romney] could take a stronger stand on, but he's what we've got," said Jim Krott, 43, of Kinderhook, N.Y.
Those who are less than enthusiastic about Romney find redemption in Ryan, whose addition to the GOP ticket has reassured social conservatives.
In his speech, Ryan gave a full-throated defense of his anti-abortion rights stance and blasted Obama for his pro-abortion rights stance.
"When he tries to make Big Government sound reasonable and inclusive, the president likes to say we're all in this together," Ryan said. But those words have little meaning "coming from a politician who has never once lifted a hand to defend the most helpless and innocent of all human beings: the child waiting to be born."
Ryan's strongly conservative positions on social issues, coupled with his specific plans for fiscal cuts, have brought skeptics on board to the GOP ticket.
"My family and I weren't quite 100 percent on board with Mitt Romney, but we were really excited that he picked Paul Ryan," said Heidi Deutch, a 16-year-old volunteer for the Family Research Council-sponsored event.
Adding Ryan to the ticket, conservative voters said, helped assure them of where Romney stands on social issues.
"[Ryan] was a huge boost, because if there was any doubt about where Romney stood ... when he put Ryan on the ticket you can see where his thought process is," Vogus said.
Stott said he liked the Ryan pick because of the policy positions the Wisconsin lawmaker adds to the ticket, but also because he's proof that Romney chose the best man for the job, instead of trying to appeal to a particular demographic.
"I love Paul Ryan," he said. "I was just ecstatic when he chose Paul Ryan, which made me appreciate Romney more - he didn't go to ethnic groups, he didn't go to women's groups - he picked the man he thought could do the job."