USA Today: Faith conference may be 'difficult bridge' for some candidates

This article first appeared online at USA Today on June 3, 2011.

Faith conference may be ‘difficult bridge’ for some candidates
By Jackie Kucinich

WASHINGTON — As Republican presidential contenders head here this weekend to address conservative leaders gathered for the Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference, activists say some hopefuls will have a lot more to prove than others.

By Josh T. Reynolds, for USA TODAY

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman talks with diners at a Manchester, N.H., restaurant during a May visit. A GOP strategist says Huntsman will face challenges in trying to win over some conservative activists.

The event, hosted by coalition Chairman Ralph Reed, will bring together some of the most influential conservative activists in the country — an important constituency for those seeking the GOP nomination.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the current platforms of the candidates will be just as important as their past records. “They have to understand the interconnectedness between the fiscal issues that are at the forefront of the debate and the underlying social issues that contribute to our fiscal problems,” he said.

Most of the major Republican contenders are scheduled to speak at the two-day event, billed as a “conference and strategy briefing” for conservatives.

Penny Nance, chief executive of Concerned Women for America, a conservative activist group, said some contenders such as former senator Rick Santorum, Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty have solid anti-abortion records and are likely to play well at the conference.

“For some of the (other) candidates, it will be a difficult bridge for them to cross,” she said.

Perkins also mentioned Bachmann, who has indicated she will announce her 2012 intentions this month, as a candidate that could drive the conversation. “She is going to set the pace because she is unapologetic, broaching all of the issues from a conservative perspective,” he said. “I think she’s going to have a very pronounced impact on this cycle.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a political action committee that backs female candidates who oppose abortion, said she will be looking for candidates who “commit to lead.”

“I think the model that doesn’t work is the model of ‘I’ll sign legislation if it comes to me,'” she said.

Though activists say anyone could win the nomination, they made it clear several GOP candidates will have a tougher time getting conservatives on board.

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, said former House speaker Newt Gingrich would have the toughest time with the conservative crowd as a result of his criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan on Meet the Press last month. “The Medicare and … the battle over reformed government is central to everything, I think, conservatives are focusing on,” Phillips said. Phillips acknowledged that Gingrich apologized to Ryan, R-Wis., for his comments and spent a week trying to clarify his remarks about the Ryan plan. “I think he has the tough sell right now,” Phillips added.

Although Gingrich was scheduled to speak Saturday to the conference, spokesman Rick Tyler said Thursday evening that Gingrich would not attend because of a scheduling conflict. “The Gingriches planned to take this week off early in the campaign,” Tyler said. “We are sending a video.”

Keith Appell, a Republican strategist, said former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman face the biggest challenges.

Romney “is perceived by some as the front-runner, and he has the most to lose,” Appell said. “He wasn’t persuasive in 2008, his conversions on (abortion) and homosexual rights issues rang hollow especially given how recent they were.”

Other leaders, such as Perkins, said the health care law Romney signed as governor will cause concern among conservatives, even though Romney has said the law was not meant for nationwide implementation.

Appell said Huntsman will have to explain his support for civil unions as well as his decision to work in the Obama administration. Huntsman has said he accepted the post in China because of his dedication to his country, not to the Obama administration.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, will address the conference, and businessman Herman Cain is scheduled to give the keynote speech Saturday night.

Though candidates in the general election focus on winning independents, wooing the base is key to winning early primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina.

“It’s the same reason Democratic presidential candidates make a parallel effort to reach out to labor or the environmental community during Democratic primaries: Those are the most intensively interested members of their respective constituencies,” said Tony Fratto, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush. “They’re also more likely to volunteer and to be active and vocal.”

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