During day one of the Faith and Freedom Conference, as several current and prospective presidential candidates took turns making their case to an audience of conservative Christians, economic themes were ubiquitous, even at a gathering where social conservative issues are at the top of the priority list.
Two former governors widely seen as top contenders for the GOP presidential nomination headlined the evening session: Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota.
Pawlenty delivered an address that mixed economic and social themes, as he continued to cast himself as a truth-teller, unique among the GOP field and different from President Obama, who the former two-term governor said has failed to keep his promises.
Romney, who spoke after Pawlenty, gave a glancing mention to social issues and framed the nation's "moral crisis" in terms the loss of economic opportunity.
Earlier in the day, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who appears likely to launch a presidential bid with an announcement in Iowa this month, won some of the loudest applause of the day with an address in which she zeroed in on gay marriage and abortion.
Former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who has also taken steps toward a bid for the White House, delivered an address focused heavily on abortion, speaking passionately about his opposition to it as he tried to distance himself from Obama, his most recent boss, and shake his reputation as a moderate.
It wasn't just the presidential candidates who made appearances at the conference. Two well-known statewide candidates also delivered speeches. Former Sen. George Allen, R-Va., who is running for his old seat in Virginia, eschewed social issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, choosing instead to hammer economic themes, in a sign of the shifting demographics of Virginia, and the many moderate voters Allen cannot afford to alienate in Washington's exurbs and suburbs.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who earlier this year passed on a presidential bid in favor of running for governor of Indiana, focused on federalism and Ronald Reagan's call for an acknowledged of state powers.
Arguably, the most provocative address of the day came from a politician who recently removed himself from the presidential field: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who urged conservatives to unite behind the party's nominee, even if they don't agree with that person on every issue.
"Purity," he said, "is the enemy of victory."
While the economy and social issues dominated the day, at least one foreign policy excited the crowd’s passions. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor delivered an address that focused on Israel; and Pawlenty received some of his most enthusiastic applause when he declared, "We need a president who stands shoulder to shoulder with our great friend Israel."
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, rounded out the evening session with a speech to a visibly emptying room. Paul, an obstetrician, talked about the importance of opposition to abortion.
Saturday speakers include:
- Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., will address the gathering. He has made social issues the focus of a presidential campaign that he’s expected to launch officially on Monday.
- Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli who is building a growing national profile among conservatives.
- Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio Secretary of State and possible Senate candidate. While many establishment Republicans are bullish on the chances of state Treasurer Josh Mandel, Blackwell could emerge as a threat in the GOP due to his name identification and connections in state political circles.
Blackwell ran for governor in 2006, and lost badly to Democrat Ted Strickland. He was one of the few potential GOP Senate candidates who publicly supported the controversial budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., before the Senate voted it down last week. Ryan also spoke at the Faith and Freedom conference Friday and won a standing ovation for invoking God to argue for fiscal restraint.