After a weekend of auditioning would-be presidents, Christian conservatives are still seeking consensus on who should get the part.
“A lot of people feel less than satisfied; there’s no news in that,” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said midway through the weekend gathering of the Family Research Council. “Of the major candidates, the big four, I don’t know if anyone has hit the mark yet.”
The Values Voters summit, with roughly 2,000 activists gathered for speeches and workshops in the Washington Hilton Hotel, displayed both the influence and the frustrations of one of the most important constituencies of the Republican coalition.
That all the major GOP candidates were eager to court the crowd attested to the potential impact of a voting bloc that has gown in importance through the Reagan era and beyond and that was central to George W. Bush’s two White House victories.
But their frustration was evident in the reactions they gave to the file of presidential hopefuls. Candidates such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, though trailing in national surveys of Republican voters, received the most enthusiastic applause. The front-running candidates received more measured responses.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose abortion-rights stand troubles many social conservatives, sought common ground with the crowd on a litany of issues, but acknowledged their differences. Quoting President Ronald Reagan, he said, “My 80 percent friend is not my 100 percent enemy.”
“I’ll continue to extend my hand to you and I hope you’ll take it,” he said at the end of a 40-minute speech interrupted several times by applause.
The New Yorker boasted of the conservative values he implemented during his tenure as mayor.
In addition to driving down crime rates, he said, “we drove pornography out of Times Square and other public places.”
The thrice-married candidate also alluded to personal issues as he said, “You and I know I’m not a perfect person. I’ve made mistakes in my life.”
Whatever differences he may have had with the crowd, Giuliani received a generally warm reception with multiple rounds of applause for his pledges to enhance conservative values in government.
Huckabee won warmer applause, urging the crowd to consider conservative values above party.
“I come not as one who comes to you, but as one who comes from you,” the former Baptist pastor told the crowd.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney may have been suggesting a contrast as he offered a glowing picture of how his own family would represent the nation as first family. He described how his administration would implement conservative polices on issues including abortion, school choice and taxes. With a joke, he addressed the theological concerns of many members of the audience.
“One or two of you may have heard that I’m Mormon,” he said. “I understand that some people think they can’t support someone off my faith. But I think that’s just because they’ve listened to Harry Reid,” he added, referring to the Senate Democratic leader, who is also a Mormon.
Romney, who came into the conference unveiling a handful of new endorsements from prominent Christian leaders, cited his credentials as an opponent of gay marriage and abortion. Addressing the concern of many in the crowd that he had come late to their position on such social issues, he noted that such conservative icons as Reagan and former Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde had supported abortion rights early in their careers.
Tancredo, a distinct long shot in the field, appeared to mock Romney’s political evolution as he said, “Conversions are supposed to be made on the way to Damascus not on the way to Des Moines.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona said his faith gave him strength while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He described a Vietnamese guard who surreptitiously loosened painfully tight ropes that bound him in a form of torture. He said the guard later inscribed a cross in the dirt with his foot, then rubbed it out.
McCain described himself as the only candidate of either party who has been anti-abortion throughout his political career.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee won applause with a promise to pray for divine guidance.
“I know what I would do the first hour when I was president. I would go into the Oval Office and close the door and pray for the wisdom to know what was right.”
(James O’Toole can be reached at jotoole(at)post-gazette.com)