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Religious conservatives host GOP hopefuls

WASHINGTON -- A gathering of religious conservatives drew nearly all the GOP presidential hopefuls to a single stage, a claim that a South Carolina debate and a well-publicized forum in New Hampshire couldn't make about their recent events.

The Faith and Freedom Coalition's two-day conference showed that the religious right still plays a major role in the nominating process, even if it's less organized than during the Christian Coalition's heyday and economic issues are dominating the early campaign.

The gathering was a tryout for candidates hoping to fill a void left by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The Southern Baptist minister won the 2008 Iowa caucus but will not run in 2012.

Most of the candidates spent more time on money issues than on spiritual matters on the opening day of the conference Friday. But they generally portrayed the federal debt and health care as moral concerns. They also paid tribute to religious conservatives who often place abortion, gay marriage and other social issues ahead of others as taxes and spending.

"I do not believe the Republican Party should focus solely on our economic life to the neglect of our human life," former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman told the conference audience of several hundred.

Huntsman and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are Mormons, a group eyed suspiciously by some Christian conservatives. They did not directly mention Mormonism in their remarks.

GOP contenders who seem to be making the most direct appeals to evangelical voters are former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who didn't attend but sent a video message.

Pawlenty, a Catholic-turned-Protestant evangelical, said his top four "commonsense principles" for the nation are to turn toward God, protect the unborn, support traditional marriage and keep Americans secure.

Bachmann, inching toward a presidential bid, reminded the audience that she home-schooled her five children and served as foster mother to 23 others. She said "marriage is under siege" in America and she ended with a prayer that asked a blessing for President Barack Obama, whom she had criticized moments earlier.

Romney, seen as an early front-runner, may have the toughest task wooing religious conservatives. As a Senate candidate and governor, he supported abortion rights, gay rights and gun control, for all of which he has reversed his stance.

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