LYNCHBURG, Va. - Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were trying to steer clear of the fight over gay marriage as the president jabbed at Republicans and his presumed election rival prepared for an address at a conservative Christian university.
Romney was talking about his commitments to his own family in an address at Liberty University, but did not plan to speak extensively about his Mormon faith, a religion viewed with skepticism by some conservative Christians.
The presidential candidates want to put aside politically risky talk and return to Americans' top worry — the economy — after a weeklong debate over gay marriage brought social issues back to the campaign trail, punctuated by Obama's embrace of same-sex marriage.
The former Massachusetts governor has emphasized that he believes marriage is between one man and one woman, a position he's long held. He will say during his address Saturday that marriage is an institution that should be defended.
Romney had planned months ago to speak at the Liberty campus. It's an opportunity to address to the kind of socially conservative audience that had been wary of him during the prolonged Republican primary fight. Republican Sen. John McCain spoke at Liberty in 2006 in advance of his presidential bid as he worked to calm concerns about his candidacy among evangelical conservatives.
"America needs your talent and your energy, all the more now that our country's in a tough spot," Romney says in remarks prepared for Liberty's graduation ceremony. "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."
Obama was not revisiting the issue of gay marriage either. In his weekly radio and Internet address, the president didn't mention his history-making endorsement. Instead, he repeated his call for congressional lawmakers to take up a "to-do list" of tax breaks, mortgage relief and other initiatives that he insists will create jobs and help middle-class families struggling in the sluggish economy.
"We tried their ideas for nearly a decade, and it didn't work out so well," Obama said in a jab at Republicans. "We can't go back to the same policies that got us into this mess. We've got to move forward. We need to build an economy where hard work and responsibility are rewarded - where you can find a good job, own your own home, maybe start a businesses, and give your kids the chance to do even better."
Having spent part of the week on the West Coast raising money for his re-election effort, Obama was due back in the Rose Garden of the White House on Saturday to honour award-winning law enforcement officers. He had no other public events scheduled for the day.
Romney's campaign confronted an issue related to gay marriage earlier this month when an openly gay spokesman, Richard Grenell, resigned from the campaign after conservatives attacked his support for same-sex marriage. Grenell had been a spokesman for John Bolton when he was U.N. ambassador during the Bush administration.
When the Boston Globe asked about the hiring of Grenell by the Romney campaign, Mathew Staver, the dean of Liberty University's law school, responded: "That's like throwing salt into a wound, and that's the absolute wrong decision if he wants to reach out to the conservative base and unite them."
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney championed a state constitutional amendment to bar gay marriage. He says he supports a federal constitutional amendment to bar gay marriage.
Still, Romney has a history of supporting certain gay rights. He is in favour of allowing states to give same-sex couples certain domestic partnership benefits, including adoption.
Romney's views on gay marriage and other social issues are shaped by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormon doctrine defines marriage as between a man and a woman and considers sexual activity outside of marriage a sin. Mormon officials contributed money and volunteers for Proposition 8, the 2008 California measure that barred same-sex marriage. Romney's political action committee contributed $10,000 to the National Organization for Marriage, the group that led the fight for that law.
However, Mormon officials have also backed measures that protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in housing and employment, including supporting such ordinances in 2009 for Salt Lake City, where the church is based.
In 2010, gay advocates protested after a high-ranking church leader said in a sermon that same-sex relationships are unnatural and can be overcome. In response, the church issued an official statement affirming its doctrine on traditional marriage but also condemning discrimination and violence against gays or any group.
AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll contributed to this report.