For one weekend at least, evangelicals once again take center stage with the Republican Party.
A star-studded lineup of GOP lawmakers, leaders, and candidates are set to speak on Friday and Saturday at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, a reminder that, even if its potency has waned amid the recession, social conservatism remains relevant within the party.
(PICTURES: Religion and the GOP contenders)
The lineup resembles the list of speakers at a GOP convention: Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are expected to speak, while nearly every major Republican presidential contender will also attend. Each is eager to curry favor with social conservatives, who make up the coalition.
“I think the list speaks for itself,” said Gary Marx, executive director for the coalition. “People understand that economic issues are at the forefront of voters’ minds, that doesn’t mean they no longer care about important social issues.”
The event also doubles as an audition for the field of 2012 hopefuls, all eager to claim a slice of the social-conservative voting bloc up for grabs with Mike Huckabee’s absence from the race. The primary’s two early front-runners, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, are both set to talk on Friday night in a pair of speeches that will be heavily scrutinized.
For evangelicals, a critical part of George W. Bush’s winning coalitions in 2000 and 2004, keeping social conservatism relevant has been the challenge since the economic collapse of 2008. Polls show that even GOP voters are overwhelmingly focused on issues like taxes and government spending, not abortion and gay marriage.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who last month opted not to run for president, took flak for calling for a “truce” on social issues. Most Republicans, however, were far more focused on his calls to eliminate the country’s deficit.
Republican candidates need to offer a well-rounded message, Marx said, that can’t back down from core social-conservative principles.
“I think that there was a pretty strong reaction and whiplash effect to those who push forward this truce paradigm, and I think that across the board all of those looking at running in 2012 could see that,” he said. “I think they can go back and look at a candidacy like Rudy Giuliani in 2008, which was also a one-trick, national security-focused campaign, and learn the lesson that you can’t just be focused on one issue area and be the nominee.”
In addition to legislative and presidential heavyweights, the conference agenda includes speakers high on entertainment value. On the same night Pawlenty and Romney will talk, celebrity businessman Donald Trump and Fox News host Glenn Beck also are on the agenda.
The most anticipated speech, however, might come from Jon Huntsman, Utah's former Republican governor, who just finished up a stint as President Obama's ambassador to China. Although he’s seen as one of the candidates most likely to secure the GOP nomination, Huntsman only just started to hit the campaign trail and is still relatively unknown to most Republicans.
“I think he’s the real wild card at this point,” said Marx. “People will approach with open minds because they don’t know much about him, good or bad.”
Of the major presidential contenders, only former House speaker Newt Gingrich won’t be in attendance. Spokesman Rick Tyler said Gingrich and his wife, Callista, scheduled a one-week vacation before he was asked to speak at the conference.
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