I just spoke with the aforementioned Oran Smith, who watched the speech in Columbia, South Carolina with a small group of religious conservatives. (He convened the group at the request of CNN, which watched the speech with them.) Smith told me that he liked the speech, and thought Romney had helped himself, but that reaction was mixed within the group.
“I was the most enthusiastic,” Smith said, “because there were several things that resonated with me that only an evangelical would notice. For instance, he talked about the coldness and deadness of religion in Europe. That is something that is talked about in evangelical churches almost every Sunday – somebody will say, ‘The mission trip to Wales is starting next week.’ Mike Huckabee might say something like that, but that’s not something you would say unless you had a really good speechwriter or you were very tuned in to evangelicalism.”
In addition, Smith told me, “There is a lot of talk in evangelicalism that we have gotten away from the Founders’ views of what religion was. A lot of evangelicals are having conversations where we pull these quotes from John Adams and others that you can’t have a decent society unless you’ve got strong religion…It’s something evangelicals talk about a lot.”
The point here, I think, is not that no one else would have noticed those words, but that Romney knew they would have special resonance for evangelicals. Those are the kind of dog-whistle references that politicians will sometimes put in speeches – remember when George W. Bush referred to the “wonder working power” of the goodness of the American people? – that are meant to be especially noticed by a particular group. Romney may have accomplished that today.