Jim Cole  /  AP
Possible 2012 presidential hopeful, former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., of Utah, right, talks presidential hopeful former Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico in June 3, 2011 in Laconia, N.H.
By
updated 6/4/2011 12:21:29 PM ET 2011-06-04T16:21:29

A gathering of religious conservatives drew nearly all the GOP presidential hopefuls to a single stage, a claim that a South Carolina debate and a well-publicized forum in New Hampshire couldn't make about their recent events.

The Faith and Freedom Coalition's two-day conference proved that the religious right still plays a major role in the nominating process, even if it's less organized than during the Christian Coalition's heyday and economic issues are dominating the early campaign.

The gathering was a tryout for candidates hoping to fill a void left by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The Southern Baptist minister won the 2008 Iowa caucus but is not running this time.

Most of the candidates spent more time on money issues than on spiritual matters on the opening day of the conference Friday. But they generally portrayed the federal debt and health care policies as moral concerns.

They also paid tribute to religious conservatives who often place abortion, gay marriage and other social issues ahead of questions such as taxes and spending.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman bypassed a large scrum of journalists but did give an interview to the Christian-oriented CBN network.

"I do not believe the Republican Party should focus solely on our economic life to the neglect of our human life," Huntsman told the conference audience of several hundred after citing numerous anti-abortion laws he signed as governor.

Huntsman and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are Mormons, a group eyed suspiciously by some Christian conservatives. They did not directly mention Mormonism in their remarks.

Mitt Romney
Stephan Savoia  /  AP
Republican presidential hopeful, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

The Republican contenders who seem to be making the most direct appeals to evangelical voters are former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who didn't attend but sent a video message.

Pawlenty, a Catholic-turned-Protestant evangelical, opened and closed his remarks with biblical quotes. His said his top four "commonsense principles" for the nation are to turn toward God, protect the unborn, support traditional marriage and keep Americans secure.

Bachmann, inching toward a presidential bid, reminded the audience that she home-schooled her five children and served as foster mother to 23 others. She said "marriage is under siege" in America and she ended with a prayer that asked a blessing for President Barack Obama, whom she had sharply criticized moments earlier.

Romney, seen as the Republicans' early front-runner, may have the toughest task in wooing religious conservatives. As a Senate candidate and one-term governor in Massachusetts, he supported legalized abortion, gay rights and gun control.

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Romney has reversed his stands on those positions. Since speakers didn't take audience questions at the event, he had an easier time than he will in other settings.

He cited "our belief in the sanctity of human life," and said marriage should apply to "one man and one woman." Romney blamed Obama for the nation's high unemployment. Job losses can push marriages to the breaking point, he said, calling it "a moral crisis."

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas mixed quotes from the Bible's first book of Samuel with his familiar libertarian proposals, such as returning to the gold standard.

All these lines got applause. Still, a sense of unease sometimes hung over the event. Organizers acknowledged that some religious conservatives are not happy with the heavy emphasis on economic matters these days.

The audience members sat silently when Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour urged them to embrace the eventual nominee despite the certainty that they will disagree with him or her on some issues.

"Purity is the enemy of victory," said Barbour, who has decided against his own presidential bid.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Unemployment may cloud Obama's 2012 campaign

  1. Closed captioning of: Unemployment may cloud Obama's 2012 campaign

    >> for republicans with these kinds of employment numbers.

    >> steve lieliesman thank you very much.

    >>> thanks to the republicans that will try to replace him in 2012 , the economy remains it most important issue for them and for the country. we're joined by john harwood , good to see you.

    >> good morning, lester.

    >>> let's continue what amy and steve were discussing, the political impact of the economy and the job numbers and the president. he was picking up on what steve was saying. the president in the internet radio address talking about gas prices , japan, european financial crisis as outside forces that may be inhibiting job growth in this country. will that work? will that sell to the american people ?

    >> it will sell to the american people , lester, if, in fact, we get aba an acceleration of growth in the end of the year. i talked to mark zandy, he cites in the debate that steve liesman referred to with those that believe it's temporary and we'll see an acceleration. if we don't, president obama has a big problem. the key element for an incumbent president seeking for re-election is not the absolute conditions but whether or not the people in the country believe we're headed in the right direction. if people think we're going backwards economically, that's a huge problem for an incumbent president.

    >> we were looking at pictures of the president talking to autoworkers yesterday. he didn't address these numbers, only mentioning there were economic head winds. is he going to have to defend his policies. will republicans come at him on all fours saying it's not japan or economic crisis in europe, i want's your policies, sflpt.

    >> -- mr. president.

    >> i was up in new hampshire with mitt romney who announced formally this week. he's sbirp he's entirely focussed on the economy saying the weakness right now is that the president has failed. the president's defense is we were shedding the jobs heavily when he took office. we're adding jobs for 15 quarters in a row. he's trying to regain the profitability of gm, chrysler, and ford. he intervened with gm and chrysler. he's got to hope, again, that people believe that whatever -- however difficult our situation is, and everybody knows we were in relate session when he took over, that it's getting better because of the things that he's done. and that's where

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