RENO, Nev. — The presidential candidates tried to put aside politically risky talk of gay rights Friday and return to Americans’ top worry, the economy, in two states critical to the hopes of President Barack Obama and his rival Mitt Romney.
Obama discussed how to help homeowners seeking to avoid foreclosure in hard-hit Nevada, while Romney was focusing on jobs in North Carolina — more evidence that each views the sluggish economic recovery as the key issue in November’s election.
For both, it was a day to move past the week’s back-and-forth on gay marriage, punctuated by Obama’s announcement that he now supports it. Romney, who reiterated his opposition to same-sex marriage repeatedly, was distracted by a news report that led him to apologize for decades ago mistreating a high school classmate who was gay.
“There are things that we can do right now to help create jobs, to help restore some of the financial security that so many families have lost,” Obama told Nevada voters after he met with struggling homeowners. “But I have to say that there are a few too many Republicans in Congress who don’t seem to be as optimistic as we are.”
Obama also drew a contrast with Romney’s plan for the nation’s struggling housing market. While never mentioning Romney by name, the president criticized his rival and others in the GOP for saying the government should allow the housing market to “hit bottom and hope for the best.”
Romney will navigate a tricky course on Saturday when he gives the commencement address at an evangelical university in Virginia, a long-planned speech designed to help him reconcile with religious conservatives nervous about his record on social issues like abortion and gay rights.
The presumptive Republican nominee planned to blend social and economic themes by telling Liberty University’s graduates that strong families are central to a strong economy.
“America needs your talent and your energy, all the more now that our country’s in a tough spot,” he says in prepared remarks for his speech at the 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 their families, saying he “never once regretted missing any experience or opportunity in business” to be with his wife and five sons. Missed moments with one’s children “don’t come again,” he said.
The speech at Liberty is a Republican tradition as well as a chance for Romney to repair what’s been a frayed connection with the evangelical right. Sen. John McCain gave the 2006 commencement address on his path to winning the 2008 Republican nomination. President George W. Bush addressed graduates while he was serving in the White House.
“He will do better if he runs toward and not away from the issues of life and marriage,” said Maggie Gallagher, the co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage. “Everyone says that the economy is the main issue. The question is whether a candidate seems to be embarrassed by his own views on life and marriage or tries to run from them, or if he can eloquently defend them.”
Still, Republican leaders are warning activists against making the gay marriage issue more prominent than Obama’s stewardship of the economy.
“I’m gonna stay focused on jobs, thanks,” House Speaker John Boehner said the day after Obama’s pronouncement on gay marriage. “The president can talk about it all he wants.”
Romney took a similar approach Friday in Charlotte, N.C. He avoided mentioning social issues, even though North Carolina voters on Tuesday strengthened the state’s ban on same-sex marriages. Instead, he focused his remarks on Obama and the slow speed of economic recovery.
“One of the reasons is that we have a president who has installed some of the old liberal policies of the past,” Romney said.
Obama, meanwhile, focused on preventing home foreclosures. He spoke in Reno, Nev., on Friday, the day after a gala dinner at the home of actor George Clooney, where 150 members of the Hollywood set paid $40,000 to eat roasted duckling and lamb and beef cheeks with the president and some of his top aides.
In Reno, Obama pushed Congress to approve mortgage refinancing legislation. For contrast, his campaign pointed to Romney’s past assertion that the solution to the foreclosure crisis was to let the housing market hit bottom.
Earlier this year, Obama proposed lower lending rates for millions of borrowers who haven’t been able to get out from under burdensome mortgages. Obama would cover the estimated $5 billion to $10 billion cost with a fee on large banks. But that plan faces an uphill fight in Congress. The White House says it would not insist on the bank fees to finance the plan.
In choosing Nevada, Obama focused on a state that he won in 2008 but whose economic struggles have been among the worst.
Nevada’s unemployment rate was 12 percent in March, the highest in the nation. The state’s foreclosures rates are second highest in the country, behind Arizona. And the Nevadans most affected by the state’s poor economy are the very voters who rallied behind Obama in 2008.
Like Romney, Obama will be drawn back to social issues after Friday. On Monday he plans a major fundraiser with gay and Latino donors in New York City, headlined by singer Ricky Martin, himself a gay Latino. He also will speak at Barnard College, sharing the stage with Evan Wolfson, the founder of the pro-gay group Freedom to Marry.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott in North Carolina contributed to this report.