WASHINGTON Divided and despondent a few months ago, U.S. social conservatives gather on Friday for a self-styled "values voters" summit newly energized by the addition of Sarah Palin to the Republican White House ticket.
A dyed-in-the-wool cultural and religious conservative, Palin, the 44-year-old governor of Alaska, is a perfect fit for this crowd: devoutly Christian, staunchly opposed to abortion rights, a mother of five and a moose hunter to boot.
Since Republican nominee John McCain chose Palin as his vice presidential running mate, the two have reignited party enthusiasm in the race against Democrat Barack Obama and running mate Joe Biden ahead of the November 4 election.
This has helped to inject hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay rights back into a campaign that had been dominated by topics that were seen as beneficial to the Democrats, such as the ailing economy and unpopular Iraq war.
Palin has been love at first sight for conservative Christians looking for a Republican savior and stands in stark contrast to the movement's long and stormy relationship with McCain, who in the past clashed with its leaders and backed policies that angered them, such as research into medical uses for stem cells.
"There is a lot of enthusiasm among social conservatives now, while just a month ago there was almost none," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council which is organizing the conference, expected to draw about 2,000 conservative activists and leaders.
"But a lot of work has to be done because there has not been the operations on the ground or grass roots enthusiasm until now that was there for (President George W.) Bush in 2004," Perkins said.
Many analysts say Bush owed his 2004 re-election to a conservative religious base that was galvanized to the polls by issues such as opposition to abortion and hostility toward gay marriage.
They were grumbling just a few months ago as McCain locked up the Republican White House nomination after a primary season that saw the evangelical vote divided among the Arizona senator, and Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, two former governors with distinctly different styles.
Three things have changed since and the 3-day "Values Voter Summit" is aimed at building on this momentum.
First, Democratic nominee Barack Obama has stirred up many conservative Christians, who view his positions as so liberal as to be beyond the pale.
Second, on the fringes of the U.S. right, an Internet smear campaign alleges among other things that Obama, whose father was a Kenyan Muslim, is secretly one himself.
Religious conservatives have also started warming to McCain since he clearly stated his long-standing opposition to abortion rights during a nationally televised talk with influential mega pastor Rick Warren.
And third, but not least, there is the "Palin factor." She electrified the Republican National Convention last week with a speech that took direct aim at Obama on a number of fronts.
That enthusiasm has turned the race into an even battle, polls show.
Neither McCain nor Palin is scheduled to address the conference, which will feature speakers such as former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, long-time religious conservative activist Gary Bauer and former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Analysts have also said Palin can help galvanize the Democratic base which did not regard the maverick McCain as a radical or extreme conservative.
(editing by David Wiessler)