WASHINGTON-Ralph Reed has a rebuttal to those who have spent the last few campaign cycles claiming that Christian voters (and by association, social issues) are having a dwindling influence on elections.
The former head of the Christian Coalition during an era when evangelicals had a more undisputed political voice, Reed points to conservative victories in 2009 and 2010 as proof that Christian voters still matter. The election of Republican governors in states with Democratic incumbents like Virginia and New Jersey in 2009, and the GOP takeover of the U.S. House in 2010, Reed argues, would not have happened without the support of evangelicals.
"But we are not done yet," he added. We are just beginning."
Reed spoke those words Friday during the opening of a two-day conference in Washington hosted by his latest organization, the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
The power-packed lineup of speakers for the event includes most current conservative political leaders and nearly all of the GOP presidential hopefuls. Many Washington insiders are surprised that a fairly new group-the coalition was founded just two years ago-could attract such a star-studded cast of political heavyweights.
But Reed, the conservative strategist who disappeared from the national spotlight after an unsuccessful run for Georgia lieutenant governor in 2005, has slowly reemerged on the political stage. The GOP noticed Reed's new coalition last year after it made 58.8 million voter contacts leading up to the election. Now the leaders of the Faith and Freedom Coalition are making a push to be one of the kingmakers in the rapidly accelerating race to secure the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
One of Friday's first speakers, Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, bemoaned Washington's lack of urgency regarding the nation's debt and deficit crisis.
"We have the most predictable, most preventable economic crisis in our history, and what are we doing?" Ryan asked. "We are playing politics. We have a leadership deficit in Washington right now."
Not only did that remark get a lot of applause from the conference's nearly 1,000 attendees, it also seemed to set the stage for the rest of the day as potential GOP presidential hopefuls filed in to made their case for filling that leadership void.
First up was Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who promised that Republicans would win the "triple crown" in 2012: keeping control of the House, taking control of the Senate, and knocking President Barack Obama out of the White House.
Bachmann, who has said she will make an announcement about her presidential aspirations sometime this month at her birthplace in Waterloo, Iowa, also pledged to repeal the new healthcare law. Married for 33 years, Bachmann spoke at length about the importance of traditional marriage and protecting life.
Those views were not surprising. But Bachman did choose to end her speech in a way rarely seen in Washington circles: She led the gathering in prayer.
"We pray for those who are in authority," she prayed. "Because this is not a political scorecard; this is about the very life and future of our nation."
Next in the line of potential presidential candidates to speak was John Huntsman, the former Utah governor and ambassador to China. A Mormon, Huntsman devoted his address to telling the largely evangelical audience about his family and his strong pro-life background. But he also delved into financial issues, warning that high debt and massive government will only lead to serfdom.
"This is the moment when we will chose whether we are to become a declining power in the world, eaten from within, or a nation that regains its economic health and long loved liberties," he said.
Another prominent Mormon, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who officially declared his candidacy for president on Thursday, was slated to speak to the conference Friday evening. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and businessman Herman Cain are all on the conference agenda.
As these possible president aspirants spend the weekend courting evangelicals, another politician who decided to forgo the race spent Friday lecturing attendees on not to expect a perfect candidate.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who flirted with the idea of running earlier this year, used his folksy Southern drawl to advise the coalition to fight hard for their preferred candidate. But he also urged them to get behind the eventual winner of the GOP nomination and not forget that the main goal is to elect conservatives.
"In politics, purity is the enemy of victory," Barbour said. "Winning is about unity. Winning is about us sticking together to achieve the main thing. There has been only one perfect person to walk this earth and there ain't going to be another in this election."