WASHINGTON -- In an election season driven by economic worries, Republican leaders are trying to keep Christian conservatives excited and involved by blurring the line between religious/social issues and low-tax crusades – a divide that has helped shape past GOP primaries.
Failure to do so could potentially depress turnout by an important part of the Republican base. Not only are fiscal issues dominating the debate, but social and Christian conservatives have no obvious candidate to turn to, as they did in 2008 when Baptist minister Mike Huckabee ran.
Facing this vacuum, a host of presidential hopefuls are emphasizing their religious faith and opposition to abortion and gay marriage, even though most are better known as business-like managers of state governments and private companies.
Their efforts were on display Friday at a Washington gathering of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group whose name summarizes the bid to combine religious and libertarian priorities.
"I do not believe the Republican Party should focus solely on our economic life to the neglect of our human life," Jon Huntsman told the crowd of several hundred, after citing numerous anti-abortion laws he signed as Utah governor.
Acknowledging that the federal deficit will be a huge issue in 2012, Huntsman said: "If Republicans ignore life, the deficit we will face is one that is much more destructive. It will be a deficit of the heart and of the soul."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made similar points, saying it's "a moral tragedy for us to pile up more and more debt" that is passed on to younger generations.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition is headed by Ralph Reed, who made his name as the young and savvy political strategist for the Christian Coalition in the 1990s. Building on television evangelist Pat Robertson's second-place finish in the 1988 GOP Iowa caucus, the religious right played a major role in Republican politics for years. It still does to a lesser extent.
Following the 2007 death of the politically dynamic Christian leader Jerry Falwell, some churches and ministers have de-emphasized partisan politics.
"Many pastors are self-censoring," Jim Garlow, of Renewing American Leadership, told the conference crowd Friday night.
The religious right's place is less certain now. Reed is among those trying to strengthen it by tying it more tightly to economic issues, which traditionally took a back seat to abortion, prayer in school, gay rights and other issues for a large segment of conservative voters.
Reed said the line between social conservatives and fiscal conservatives is thinner and blurrier than it was a few years ago. "The tea party was the moment that marriage took place," he said, alluding to the libertarian-tinged movement that arose in 2009, mainly in opposition to President Barack Obama's health care proposals.
It's not entirely clear how solid that marriage is, however. In one of the conference's longer segments, Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots acknowledged that the two groups sometimes frustrate each other. They "must stand together" to defeat Obama next year, he said.
Without question, many conservative and liberal voters care deeply about social and economic issues alike. But in the world of conservative activists, many seem more at home in one camp or the other.
An August 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of tea party supporters had not heard of or did not have an opinion about "the conservative Christian movement sometimes known as the religious right."
Another conservative speaker on Friday, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, suggested that social issues play the principal role in the social-fiscal marriage. "We cannot fix the fiscal until we fix the family," he said, urging the government and society to encourage marriage and parental responsibility.
Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist says Christian conservatives obviously care about fiscal issues, but they still gravitate toward candidates with strong evangelical backgrounds and an emphasis on issues such as combating abortion and championing the sanctity of marriage.
Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, captured many of those voters when he won the 2008 Iowa caucus. His absence this year, Norquist said, leaves "those voters and those issues more in play."
An evangelical with a record of cutting taxes and spending might do especially well, he said. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty could fill that role, Norquist said, adding that he is neutral in the presidential race.
Pawlenty was raised Catholic but left for an evangelical congregation while courting his future wife, Mary. He began and ended his conference remarks Friday with biblical quotes and said the nation must turn toward God, protect the unborn, support traditional marriage and keep Americans secure.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who is inching toward a presidential bid, also delivered sure-fire applause lines from the Faith and Freedom crowd. She reminded them that she home-schooled her five biological children and served as foster mother to 23 others. She said "marriage is under siege" in America, and closed with a prayer.
Newt Gingrich, a protestant-turned-Catholic, also has stressed his religious faith, although he did not plan to speak to the gathering. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas struck his familiar libertarian themes, and quoted from the Bible's first book of Samuel.
Candidates Rick Santorum and Herman Cain are scheduled to speak to the conference Saturday. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin declined an invitation.
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, later describing his words as "the Dutch uncle talk."
Many at the conference seemed more moved by the issues being discussed than by the candidates discussing them.
"I'm still sitting on the fence," said Mark Roepke of Arlington, Va., who was handing out stickers saying "Defund Planned Parenthood," a group that provides pregnancy counseling and abortions. His eventual choice, he said, will have to bridge the gap that Reed contends is narrowing.
"I don't think you can have a country that's economically healthy without being socially and spiritually healthy," Roepke said.