The Faith and Freedom Conference, organized by former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, met in Washington this weekend and previewed several Republican presidential primary candidates—including Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, who are both committed to seeking the GOP nomination, as well as Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman, who are considering a run.
It was a gathering of grassroots conservative activists for two days of speeches and political strategy sessions—and a chance for candidates to seek support from social conservatives—with a focus on life, family values, and the growth of government. According to its website, the Faith and Freedom Coalition is "committed to educating, equipping, and mobilizing people of faith and like-minded individuals to be effective citizens."
Mitt Romney, largely considered by the media to be the frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination, made his appeal in a Friday night address. “We’re united tonight in a lot of things,” Romney began. “We’re united in the love we have for this great country. We’re united in our belief in the sanctity of human life. We’re united in our belief in the importance and significance of marriage between one man and one woman.”
But it was Romney’s criticisms of Obama that received the most adulation from the crowd. “I don’t think it’s possible to solve a crisis if you can’t see a crisis,” he said. “And this president does not see a crisis, and we do.”
“I was more interested in Mitt Romney after last night’s appearance,” said conference attendee Bobbie O’Neill of South Carolina. “I thought he really did well.”
Russell Krantz, a student at American University, said he’s not likely to vote for Romney but he still liked what the former Massachusetts governor had to say. “He didn’t change my mind into supporting him,” Krantz said. “But it seemed like he had the most developed campaign message and he was doing a good job of articulating everything with an overarching theme.”
Yet the most popular potential candidate here have been Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann, who spoke Friday morning in a forceful and well-received speech.
“I really like Michele Bachmann,” said Sally An of North Carolina. “She will be my first choice. I think she’s very clear about everything. She’s very knowledgeable. She has morals.”
Amy Farina, also a student at American University, said Bachmann and her fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty are her top choices at the moment. “I don’t see anyone as really, really strong right now, but I’m happy,” Farina said. “I really like Michele Bachmann. I like Tim Pawlenty.”
Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, spoke on Friday and was also warmly received, particularly when he criticized the president.
“The last thing we need as a country is to give Barack Obama more money to waste in Washington, D.C.,” he said to big applause. Pawlenty also received a large standing ovation when he reiterated his support for Israel.
While Pawlenty was well received, and a few attendees even mentioned him as their top choice, some of those who attended a later session hosted by former Bill Clinton adviser Dick Morris came away with a negative view of the governor.
“Pawlenty, I wouldn’t vote for him,” said Yvette Zannini of North Carolina, after hearing Morris’s criticism. “I heard about what he did when he was governor in allowing Sharia law to become, to affect some legislation that [Muslims] don’t have to pay interest because it’s against the Sharia law.”
Pawlenty, however, has said he didn’t support the mortgage financing program, which Morris spoke at length about, that allowed Muslims to avoid paying interest and was reportedly used by about three people. The Pawlenty campaign says the governor ended the state housing agency’s program as soon as he discovered it.
“We've explained to Dick [Morris] on multiple occasions how Gov. Pawlenty ended this program as soon as he learned about it, but Dick has no respect for the facts,” said campaign spokesman Alex Conant in an email.
A Friday afternoon appearance by former Utah governor Jon Huntsman certainly raised his profile among the group, some of whom knew nothing or little of the recently resigned U.S. ambassador to China.
“I didn’t even really know anything about him, and so this was wonderful to hear him speak,” said Zannini. “I want to investigate him even more.”
“I was a little skeptical about Jon Huntsman at first, just from what I had been following recently,” said Farina. “But hearing him speak and learning that he worked in the Reagan administration, stuff like that, kind of made me give him a little bit more of a chance.”
Others seeking the Republican nomination in 2012 who spoke at the conference were former House speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, current House member Ron Paul, and businessman Herman Cain, who was the conference keynote speaker.