UPDATE 3-Republicans court evangelicals at faith conference
* Economic issues dominate
* Barbour warns against seeking "perfect candidate"
* Romney: Economy is "moral tragedy"
* Trump: Must have change at the top (Adds Romney, Trump, Pawlenty)
By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, June 3 (Reuters) - Republican presidential hopefuls courted Christian conservative voters on Friday at a conference where U.S. economic concerns shared the stage with social issues that frequently dominate the religious right.
Many political speakers at the Faith and Freedom Coalition emphasized jobs, debt and deficits on the day the Labor Department reported the unemployment rate rose to 9.1 percent in May.
In contrast to some previous presidential campaigns, social issues like gay marriage and abortion have not been prominent topics for Republican hopefuls seeking to replace President Barack Obama in next year's election.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who announced his bid this week, began his 2008 presidential run talking largely about social issues. His 2012 run has begun with an emphasis on the economy.
Romney told the crowd the sputtering economy is a "moral crisis" and criticized the White House for saying the rise in unemployment represented "bumps on the road to recovery."
"No, Mr. President, that's not a bump, that's Americans," Romney said. Unemployed people are not statistics, he said.
Evangelicals are a powerful force in Republican politics, usually a reliable base of support for the party. And they will be key to victory in Iowa, whose voting contest in January will help set the tone for the 2012 Republican presidential race.
The weakness of the economy has triggered a debate within the Republican Party about whether conservatives should call a "truce" on social questions to concentrate on fiscal issues.
Donald Trump, the real estate investor who decided against a 2012 run, said the Friday jobs report was "a total disaster" and ripped Obama's handling of the economy.
"If we don't make a change at the top, we are going over the ledge," Trump said.
While the economy dominated, there was still plenty of talk about social issues -- to loud applause from the crowd gathered in a hotel ballroom in Washington.
"We need to be a nation that turns toward God, not away from God," said former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, a Republican 2012 candidate.
Representative Michelle Bachmann, who is likely to run for her party's 2012 presidential nomination, emphasized her social conservative roots, saying Americans should push for individual states to pass constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage.
She received a standing ovation when she denounced Obama's healthcare overhaul, which she says encourages abortions.
"We will repeal Obamacare. It will happen," Bachmann said to cheers.
Former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, a moderate Republican considering a 2012 run, attempted to shore up any questions evangelicals have about him by emphasizing his opposition to abortion.
"I do not believe the Republican Party should focus only on our economic plight, to the neglect of our human plight. That is a trade we should not make. If Republicans ignore life, the deficit that we face is one that is much more destructive," he said.
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour appealed for unity among fiscal and social conservatives in the party.
Barbour, who considered a run for president but abandoned it, told the group there would not be a "perfect candidate" for them and that "purity is the enemy of victory."
"We're going to nominate somebody for president that doesn't agree with you on everything and you're not going to agree with them on everything. But I'm going to tell you what, they're going to agree with you on a lot more than you agree with Barack Obama," he said. (Editing by Doina Chiacu and Sandra Maler)
- Tweet this
- Share this
- Digg this