Republican presidential hopefuls sought support from a conference of Christian conservatives, with some contenders choosing to give more weight to economic matters than to social issues, such as abortion, that are central to a voting bloc the party relies on.
On the first day of the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s conference in Washington, U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who has hinted that she may be interested in a White House run, spoke out against abortion and drew a standing ovation when she condemned President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul. Another potential candidate, Jon Huntsman, centered his remarks on social issues, saying that as governor of Utah, he signed every anti-abortion bill that reached his desk.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who formally entered the 2012 race for the White House this week, focused on the economy and the growing national debt, calling Obama’s handling of the situation a “moral tragedy.” He said the president is blind to the impact the nation’s 9.1 percent jobless rate is having on ordinary Americans.
“This is not just a crisis, this is a moral crisis that we face in this country,” he said.
White House Contenders
The two-day conference drew a flock of White House contenders, both potential and announced, including former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who spoke yesterday. The group also heard yesterday from real estate developer Donald Trump, who said last month that he wouldn’t run for the Republican nomination after flirting with a possible bid.
Businessman Herman Cain and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum were on today’s agenda. Santorum tied his opposition to abortion to fiscally conservative issues such as cutting government spending, saying today “social conservatives understand that the bigger the government the smaller the person.’”
Another candidate for the Republican nomination, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, didn’t attend the conference.
In his remarks yesterday, Pawlenty highlighted what he said are “broken promises” by Obama to halve the U.S. budget deficit in his first term and boost the economy. He said Obama isn’t leveling with Americans about the unpopular choices --such as curbing subsidies to industries and making changes to Social Security -- that are needed to restore fiscal balance and move to policies that can create more jobs.
He also highlighted his opposition to abortion and pledged to ensure that traditional marriage remains elevated under the law. “All domestic relationships are not the same as marriage, and it needs to be protected,” Pawlenty said.
Bachmann drew one of the warmest responses from the crowd. She urged the audience to work to prevent their state governments from implementing the health-care overhaul supported by Obama and enacted last year.
The law, which is being challenged in several lawsuits, requires most Americans to have health insurance and bars insurers from denying coverage to people who are sick.
She assured the group that the law would be repealed. “We will win this fight,” she said to a standing ovation. “Take it to the bank. Cash the check. It will be done.”
She also touched on other issues, including abortion and marriage. She cited Census Bureau statistics reporting that fewer than half of U.S. households are now headed by a married couple of one man and one woman. “Marriage is under siege like no other time in history,” she said.
Bachmann, a favorite of Tea Party activists who helped fuel Republican gains in the 2010 elections, has said she intends to make clear later this month whether she will seek the presidency.
Huntsman underscored his efforts to advance anti-abortion legislation in Utah, including a bill that would outlaw abortion in the state if the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision were overturned. He noted that he and his wife had adopted two children from overseas, and he thanked their birth mothers for allowing them to be raised by his family.
Huntsman, who earlier this year resigned as U.S. ambassador to China under Obama to explore challenging him, said Republicans should focus on social issues, along with the economy and the federal deficit, in the 2012 campaign.
“There is something more essential than politics, and that’s life,” he said. “If Republicans should ignore life, the deficit we will face is one that will be much more destructive.”
Paul decried an “epidemic” of children born out of wedlock, the breakdown of families, and a society that has become far too dependent on government.
“Today there is so much dependency -- dependency on the government, and it’s cradle to grave,” he said, as the audience cheered him repeatedly and gave him a standing ovation.
Romney received a warm response, even though his past ties with social conservatives have had some strains, and his remarks made little mention of social policy issues. He said he sees marriage as between “one man and one woman,” and he spoke largely of restoring entrepreneurial, small-government values.
Romney’s views on abortion and gay rights have been an issue with social conservatives. He supported legal abortion and advocated for gay rights when he began his political career in Massachusetts with a failed 1994 bid to unseat then-Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat, and when he won the state’s governorship in 2002.
By the time he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, his position on both issues had changed; he supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and was firmly anti-abortion. He was dogged by “flip-flop” charges during that campaign, and many social conservatives continue to question his commitment to their causes.
Evangelical Christians are an important part of the Republican voting bloc. In the 2008 presidential election, they accounted for 23 percent of the electorate, according to the Pew Research Center, and 73 percent of their votes went to Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
The Faith and Freedom Conference is the second event featuring Republican presidential contenders that has been staged by the coalition, based in Duluth, Georgia. It sponsored a forum in Des Moines in March and plans one in Florida in September. The head of the group, Ralph Reed, ran the Christian Coalition of America, which was founded by evangelist Pat Robertson, from 1989 to 1997.
Like the Christian Coalition, the Faith and Freedom Coalition plans to prepare voting guides for churches and civic organizations to hand out before Election Day. The website also includes lawmakers’ voting records on issues of importance to the group.
The Reverend Barry Lynn, a minister in the United Church of Christ and executive director of Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, criticized the Faith and Freedom group’s political efforts. He said Reed and the coalition’s other leaders want “to forge fundamentalist churches and church members into a disciplined voting bloc and force political candidates to kneel before it.”
“This kind of mixture of religion and politics is a grave danger to American public life,” Lynn said.
-- With assistance from Lisa Lerer in Washington. Editors: Leslie Hoffecker, Ann Hughey.