KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Republican Mitt Romney is trying to shift his campaign's focus back to the sluggish economic recovery and will use a commencement speech at an evangelical university to cast strong families as central to a strong economy.
"Although opportunities seem scarce in this economy, it is not for nothing that you have spent this time preparing. America needs your talent and your energy, all the more now that our country's in a tough spot," the presumptive Republican presidential nominee on Saturday will tell graduates of Liberty University, the conservative Christian school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. "In the most practical, everyday terms, the best cultural assets are values as basic as personal responsibility, the dignity of hard work, and, above all, the commitments of family."
Romney also will tell the graduates to cherish time with their families, saying he "never once regretted missing any experience or opportunity in business" to be with his wife and five sons. "Regrets usually come the other way around, from missing moments with your children that don't come again," the wealthy former businessman said.
Romney's campaign released excerpts of his speech a day early. His remarks will be delivered a few days after he reaffirmed his opposition to same-sex marriage after President Barack Obama's historic embrace of gay marriage. The former Massachusetts governor also spent Thursday shrugging off a news report that he had bullied a gay classmate in prep school.
On Friday, Romney will try to shift the discussion back to jobs and the economy during an appearance in North Carolina, where voters this week approved a constitutional ban on same-sex unions.
While raising money Thursday in Kansas City, Mo., Romney all but ignored the discussion of gays and lesbians prompted by Obama's endorsement of gay marriage. The renewed attention on gay rights came as Obama thrust the issue into the forefront by becoming the first president to support allowing gay couples to wed, shifting the campaign debate to social issues, where Romney faces skepticism among the Republican base.
"This is a time when we can follow this president down a road of decline and weakness or we can take a course that is based on a positive dynamic and a bold vision for this country," he said.
During a fundraiser and public appearance earlier Thursday in Omaha, Neb., Romney hammered his vision for economic greatness, telling supporters "this could be the beginning of an extraordinary century for America."
Obama's unexpected embrace of gay marriage continued to overwhelm the presidential campaign as liberals and conservatives debated the political merits of his endorsement of an issue over which a president has little practical impact.
For Romney, the discussion of gay rights turned personal when The Washington Post published a story recounting how he and several schoolmates held down classmate John Lauber and cut off his bleached blond hair after seeking him out in his dorm room at their boarding school in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
The Post said Lauber was "perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality" and that he screamed for help as Romney held him down and forcibly hacked off his hair. The paper recounted another incident in which Romney shouted "atta girl" to a different student at the all-boys' school who, years later, came out as gay.
At no point on Thursday did Romney volunteer comments about the report or about Obama's views on gay rights. But he did apologize for what he characterized as tomfoolery when asked by reporters.
"I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school and some may have gone too far. And for that I apologize," Romney told Fox News during a hastily arranged radio interview.
Romney said he didn't remember the Lauber incident, but also didn't dispute that it happened. He stressed that he didn't know either student was gay and moved quickly to counter any suggestion he had targeted students because they were.
"That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case," he said, adding that the students involved "didn't come out of the closet until years later."
In a second interview Thursday, Romney laid out what he said was his long-held position on gay rights: While opposed to gay marriage, he said states should be allowed to grant various domestic partnership rights to same-sex couples, including the right to adopt children.
"States could have their own decisions with regards to the domestic partnership rights," Romney told Fox News in his second interview of the day with the network. "But my preference would be to have a national standard for marriage and that marriage would be defined as being between a man and a woman."
He said he would go as far as supporting gay couples who want to adopt children. "If two people of the same gender want to live together, want to have a loving relationship and even want to adopt a child — in my state, individuals of the same sex are able to adopt children — in my view, that's something which people have the right to do."
Romney's advisers signaled they planned to campaign on the issue but acknowledged they would have to tread carefully. "I think it's important to be respectful in how we talk about our differences, but the fact is that's a significant difference in November," Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser, said Thursday on MSNBC.
Hunt reported from Washington.