WASHINGTON (AP) — A Washington gathering of religious conservatives this weekend did something a South Carolina Republican debate and a well-publicized forum in New Hampshire couldn't do a few weeks ago.
It drew nearly all the GOP presidential hopefuls to one stage. The Faith and Freedom Coalition's two-day conference proved that the religious right still plays a major role in the party's nominating process, even if it's somewhat less organized than it was in the Christian Coalition's heyday, and even if economic issues are dominating the run-up to the 2012 elections.
The gathering was a tryout, of sorts, 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 fiscal 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.
And in subtle and unsubtle ways, they 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 waiting to speak with him but gave a private 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 Friday, separated by several hours.
Huntsman, however, said Mormon-dominated Utah "has some of the greatest people in the nation."
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 declined an invitation to the conference.
Pawlenty, a Catholic-turned-Protestant evangelical, opened and closed his remarks Friday with Bible 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, who is inching toward a presidential bid, also delivered sure-fire applause lines. She 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 closed 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.
Romney has reversed his stands on those positions. Since speakers didn't take audience questions at the Faith and Freedom event, he had an easier time Friday 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 Republican presidential nominee despite the certainty that they will disagree with him or her on some issues.
"Purity is the enemy of victory," Barbour said. Since he decided against his own presidential bid, he said, he took it upon himself to deliver "the Dutch uncle talk."
The crowd warmed up when Barbour said the overriding goal, regardless who is nominated, is to make Obama a one-term president.