He wasn't there but Mitt Romney got some love over the weekend at a Washington, D.C., gathering of more than 2.000 evangelical Protestants representing a demographic that proved crucial to electing the last four Republican presidents.
Many of the born-again Christians at Family Research Council President Tony Perkins' annual Values Voter Summit — some from as far away as the California — are recent converts to the Romney presidential quest. They said in interviews that they have put aside their doubts in favor of what they say is a man who, though a Mormon, shares their moral values and political aims despite the doctrinal differences between his faith and theirs.
"I know I said a few months ago that I would never vote for a Mormon, but my husband and I and our friends are so far past that now," said Kim Bengard, whose San Clemente, Calif., home is three doors away from what was President Nixon's "Western White House." "I have come to understand that Mitt Romney supports my values. We're really pleased with him."
Retired federal worker Bob Nelson, a Gaithersburg evangelical activist, said he didn't mind Mr. Romney's absence this year, because the former Massachusetts governor had addressed the two previous Values Voter Summit gatherings.
"Obviously, if you have just named a vice presidential candidate, you don't want to upstage him — and [Wisconsin Rep.] Paul Ryan hasn't been here before." Mr. Ryan, a Catholic, and Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican and a Presbyterian, were among the most warmly received politicians at the summit.
A new Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll analysis predicts that 34 percent of this year's GOP voters will be white evangelical voters, another 20 percent "mainline" Protestants, and 21 percent, Catholics.
Continuing a trend of several years, support for a more aggressive foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, was evident in the content of speeches and the positive audience response.
Asked in an interview if he felt that summit speakers in general raised the protection of Israel to equal or near equal importance with the protection of the United States in a time of renewed Middle East crisis, Mr. Perkins said, "Yes. It is clear the Obama administration's lead-from-behind foreign policy is a failure. The message here is, 'Stop apologizing and start defending American ideals!'"
Gary Bauer, a Reagan White House adviser who sought the GOP presidential nomination in 2000, said in an interview that "foreign policy should be growing in importance as issue, but it tends to move a lot slower in the minds of Americans unless confronted with dramatic events like 9/11."
Mr. Bauer recalled that in the 1979-1980 Iranian hostage crisis, "people wanted to be with President Carter and it took his grinding platitudes for people to get the idea he doesn't understand the world. The events in Libya and Egypt this week show tremendous failures by Obama, but Republicans haven't made a good critique of that failure."
Despite their support for Israel, most Jewish voters still favor Mr. Obama, though in smaller numbers than the 76 percent they registered in 2008.
An Investors Business Daily-Christian Science Monitor-TIPP Poll last week showed the president leading Mr. Romney by 59 percent to 35 percent among Jewish voters, a significant decline from he 78 percent Mr. Obama won in 2008 but still a clear majority. Much of the evangelical support for Israel stems from interpretations of the Bible and the Second Coming.
The importance that conservative religious organizations and the GOP attach to making direct appeals to the religious voter was highlighted by a turn at the podium of almost every big name in religion and politics during the three-day meeting at the Omni Shoreham Hotel.
But presidential historian and evangelical Doug Wead said this summit, like other such gatherings in the past, is likely to have only a slight election impact, since Mr. Romney's campaign has shown "the weakest outreach to evangelical voters I have seen since Robert Dole."
Not widely admired by evangelicals, Mr. Dole was the Kansas senator who won the 1996 GOP presidential nomination.
Some summit speakers were there because of their close association with social issues like opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, child adoption by same-sex couples and banning prayer and religious symbols in public places. This category included former Reagan and Bush administration official and cultural warrior William J. Bennett, former Family Research Council President Bauer, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (one of the few evangelical Protestants to address the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.), Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Webcast host Glenn Beck and Arkansas Gov. Jan. Brewer.
Speakers not primarily associated with religion or the religious right included Reagan-era hero and Fox TV News correspondent Oliver North, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Kentucky's Mr. Paul.
"I never heard Rand Paul give a presentation and I was impressed with how humble he was — so honest in saying he struggled with things in life, not arrogant or assuming, very appealing," Mrs. Bengard said.
Mrs. Bengard said when it came to Mr. Ryan, she was struck by his humility in recalling how as a young aide he carried in one hand coffee for Mr. Bennett and in the other hand one of Mr. Bennett's books.
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