WASHINGTON -– Check off another box for Jon Huntsman.
The former ambassador to China, ex-Utah governor and likely Republican presidential candidate publicly met with leading social conservatives for the first time Friday and introduced himself to hard-line conservative voters, the portion of the primary electorate with which he faces the most challenges.
He got an exceedingly warm introduction from long-time GOP activist Ralph Reed, whose Freedom and Faith Coalition organized the conference. He hit all the right notes on abortion, spending and personal liberty. And while the audience reception was only moderately warm, the reaction from several attendees afterwards was overwhelmingly positive.
"I was skeptical about him at first, but I was really impressed," said Debra Kohl, a voter registration coordinator for Concerned Women for America from St. Louis. She said Huntsman "came across as a strong leader" and was "well spoken."
"I think he's going to be the strong come from behind candidate that everybody has overlooked," Kohl said. "I thought, 'You know what? This could be our guy.'"
While Kohl's reaction was perhaps the most effusive of the almost a dozen attendees who spoke with The Huffington Post, only one person among all the interviewees said that Huntsman's support for same-sex civil unions is a disqualifying issue. That attendee, a woman, refused to give her name. All the others who agreed to be quoted said the civil unions issue was a concern, but that they could overlook it.
"Gay marriage is non-negotiable. Civil unions are negotiable," said Bill Banuchi, a marriage and family counselor from upstate New York.
Banuchi said after Huntsman's speech that the likely candidate was "passionate about the pro-life movement, about children and about marriage."
Huntsman benefited from having a number of more Libertarian-minded voters in attendance. Leslie Jones, a retired pharmacy technician from Virginia Beach, wore a button supporting Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) for president. Jones said she is a social conservative but has "no problem" with civil unions and does not think the government should be involved in sanctioning marriages of any kind.
"I am a personal social conservative, but I don't expect that of other people," she said. "Just as I don't want sharia law pushed on me, I don't want my beliefs being pushed on anybody else."
Reed introduced Huntsman as a "good conservative and great friend" and said that as governor of Utah, Huntsman had "supported and signed some of the most sweeping pro-life legislation in the nation."
Huntsman accentuated his record on pro-life issues in his remarks. He introduced the topic by talking about his adopted 12-year-old daughter, Gracie Mei.
Huntsman said that Gracie Mei tells people that when she was abandoned in a vegetable market in China, it was Jesus who found her. The line was met with an audible chorus of "Awww" from the audience, though it might also have raised questions with some about Huntsman's faith. He is a Mormon but has made comments indicating he is not as devout as some.
"As governor of Utah I supported and signed every pro-life bill that came to my desk," Huntsman said, rattling off legislation that made second trimester abortions illegal, a bill that he said allowed "women to know about the pain that abortion causes an unborn child," a bill "requiring parental permission for an abortion," and another piece of legislation "that would trigger a ban on abortions in Utah if Roe vs. Wade were overturned."
"You see," Huntsman explained, "I do not believe the Republican Party should focus only on our economic life to the neglect of our human life."
He did not mention marriage, though that topic was touched on by several other speakers, including Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), another likely presidential-hopeful.
The successful outing for Huntsman follows his well-executed first trip to New Hampshire two weeks ago. After his Faith and Freedom speech, he avoided questions from the press and traveled to the Granite State for another trip. And Huntsman will make his third venture into the first-in-the-nation primary state next weekend, an aide said.
Many challenges remain for Huntsman, who is polling in single digits and remains a long-shot candidate. He has been overshadowed by bigger names such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Huntsman is also been labeled the choice of the establishment elite by conservative icons like Rush Limbaugh, and will no doubt face further criticism from the Limbaughs and Mark Levins of the world if he does gain any traction with primary voters.
Nonetheless, an opening remains for a candidate like Huntsman, and he put down an opening bid on contesting the way he will be portrayed to the conservative grassroots in his speech Friday.
Bachmann, however, was clearly the favorite of the crowd. She spoke at length about how traditional marriage is "under siege like at no other time in history" to pleasant applause. But Bachmann stoked the crowd into a frenzy with her talk of repealing President Obama's health care law.
"I am committed. I will not rest until we repeal Obamacare," she said as the audience rose to its feet and cheered loudly. "America will not rest until we repeal Obamacare."
"Take it to the bank. Cash the check. It will be done," she shouted.
Against Bachmann's wishes, her staff appeared oddly intent on keeping the congresswoman away from the press after the speech.
"So where are we doing media?" Bachmann asked a cluster of two or three aides on an escalator as they tried to hustle her away from a throng of reporters. When the aides told her –- and reporters -- that a vote had been called in the House and that she needed to leave immediately, Bachmann was disappointed and told her staffers that she had promised the press she would speak with them.
"It's all under control," one of her aides told her.
When she reached the top of the escalator, Bachmann said very loudly: "I told the press that I'd do a question or two so I'll do that. Votes are called so I have to run."
Other speakers at the conference included House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, and others. All of the other 2012 GOP candidates are scheduled to speak Friday night or on Saturday.
But the politician with with the most interesting things to say was actually the person with nothing to lose. That was Haley Barbour, the Republican governor of Mississippi and former potential candidate for president, who decided last month not to run and is finishing out his second term.
Barbour delivered what he dubbed "the Dutch uncle talk" to the 300 or so conservative activists in the audience. Free to speak his mind now that he is no longer running for office, he warned them against fracturing in the 2012 presidential election. The governor's tone was sharp and without a hint of pandering.
"We can't change the country like we want it unless we win the election. OK? Remember. Purity in politics -- purity is the enemy of victory. OK? We can't stand out with the idea, as the Faith and Freedom Coalition, that our candidate's got to agree with me on everything," Barbour said.
"You got to get in your head right now, 'I'm going to fight for my person, but when it's over I am going to support the person that's going to beat Barack Obama,'" he said.
Barbour said he has watched Alabama Gov. George Wallace split the Republican vote in 1968 and Texas businessman Ross Perot do it again in 1996, and urged the crowd to avoid that same fate.
"I know you don’t want to stand up and look in in the mirror in the first Wednesday of November 2012 and say, 'Barack Obama's reelected because of what I didn't do.' I can't think of a worse experience than to have to look at that face in the mirror, if that were to happen," he said.
"Barack Obama has won out two sets of kneepads down on his knees praying that conservatives will split up and we'll have some third-party candidate."
Barbour told reporters afterward that the Tea Party so far has avoided the mistakes of the past: "Unlike the Perot movement it never evolved into a third party," he said. "There's no chance if we divided our vote. So despite the fact that they realized that, it needs to be repeated. So I repeated it today."