05/11/2012 05:42 pm ET Updated May 11, 2012

Mitt Romney To Wade Into Marriage Debate In Speech To Christian University

NEW YORK -- Mitt Romney will wade, ever so cautiously, into the debate over gay marriage during a commencement speech on Saturday at a Christian university in Virginia, his campaign said Friday.

"Marriage isn't the focus of the speech, but he will mention the fact that marriage is an enduring institution which deserves to be defended," a senior Romney adviser told reporters on a Friday afternoon conference call, held on the condition that the campaign official not be quoted by name.

After President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that he now supports gay marriage, there has been much speculation about how Romney will handle the issue during his speech Saturday at Liberty University, a school in southwest Virginia that has 12,500 students and bills itself as the "largest Christian university in the world."

Romney has tried to play down the story, repeating his opposition to gay marriage, as well as his support for legal rights for same-sex couples, including adoption. But he avoided direct criticism of Obama on the issue and and has tried to redirect attention to the economy.

"The reason that the governor got into the race for president is because of the dismal state of the economy. Jobs and the economy is the message that carried him through the primaries, it's what he takes with him into the general election, and it is why he's going to win in November," the Romney adviser said on the conference call.

But Romney's speech at Liberty is a unique moment, coming as it does at a school whose founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, was one of the most public evangelical faces involved in the "culture wars" in the 1980s.

Romney, a Mormon who has held moderate positions on social issues such as gay rights and abortion in the past, before moving to the right over the past decade, has not had a strong bond with evangelical Christian voters. So a robust defense of traditional marriage between a man and a woman could help Romney with a key voting bloc.

And indeed, on Thursday, senior Romney adviser Ed Gillespie said that Romney's opposition to gay marriage is "a significant difference in November" between him and Obama.

But on the conference call, the Romney adviser tried to play down expectations that the former Massachusetts governor would talk extensively about the subject.

"This is not a policy speech," the adviser said. "It is a speech for the gradates and their parents."

"It's more of a personal speech, where Governor Romney will talk about what he's learned from his own life experience, and he'll share some of those life lessons with the graduates," the Romney adviser said. "He will talk about personal responsibility, the dignity of hard work and the commitments of family."

The adviser was asked whether Romney will talk about his own faith, and said he will not.

"He will talk about the big picture of how our Judeo-Christian tradition includes such American values as religious freedom," the adviser said. "He'll also talk about how trusting in God makes for a good life. But it is not a speech about Mormonism, per se."