Donald Trump threatened a third-party presidential run, Herman Cain and Israeli lawmaker Danny Danon stirred up the crowd and Jon Huntsman Jr. and Tim Pawlenty got polite receptions at the second annual Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington.
Ralph Reed’s gathering Friday and Saturday of conservatives also heard from GOP presidential polling front-runner Mitt Romney, the only major hopeful to not mention Israel, and saw a video address from a vacationing Newt Gingrich, who led an informal survey by The Washington Times of Republicans asked whom they would most like to hear give a speech.
Only Mr. Cain, a former corporate executive and the sole black 2012 nomination contender, set afire the audience of several hundred political operatives, activists and consultants, most of them religious and social conservatives clearly dedicated both to defeating President Obama and to supporting Israel.
But it was a man who fancies himself the new GOP kingmaker - real estate magnate and TV star known as “the Donald” - who proved to be the biggest attraction before Mr. Cain’s closing banquet address Saturday night.
The outspoken New York billionaire “was a big draw, no question about it,” Mr. Reed told The Washington Times.
Mr. Trump, who earlier this year ruled out a bid for the GOP presidential nomination after flirting with the idea for weeks, reasserted his embrace of same-sex marriage, his pro-life view on abortion and the dire need to deny Mr. Obama a second term.
In a separate interview, however, Mr. Trump said he would run as an independent if the GOP nominates “someone I don’t agree with” - a threat not exactly in keeping with the “unity” theme sounded by Mr. Reed, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and virtually every other speaker.
But no issue seemed to unify those in attendance more than Israel. One “breakout” panel of speakers addressed the subject, “Israel: Surrounded Yet Undaunted in the Face of Evil.” And from the podium in the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Washington, speaker after speaker offered steadfast support for Israel while leveling stiff criticism at Mr. Obama’s desire to have the starting point for renewed peace talks to be based on Israel’s borders before the Six-Day War in 1967.
“America must do what all previous presidents have done since Harry Truman and stand with Israel. I stand with Israel,” Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said Friday.
One of the loudest ovations Saturday night came after Danny Danon, a member of the Knesset for the Likud Party, said in his speech, “President Obama, take your hands from Jerusalem.
“We will fight, and Jerusalem will stay united,” he vowed, sparking the audience into a frenzy. “Jerusalem will stay under Jewish control forever.” Following the speech, Bob Reccord, executive director of the Council for National Policy, offered a prayer, saying “Heavenly Father, the Scriptures are very clear when they tell us in the Old Testament pray for peace in Jerusalem.”
The importance of Israel as the “only friend and ally” of the United States in the Middle East shared thematic dominance with an evangelicals desire to elect a Republican to replace Mr. Obama in the 2012 elections.
Much of the conference was devoted to simultaneous work sessions led by specialists in political organizing and messaging.
Mr. Reed said the purpose of the conference was not just to give 2012 aspirants a platform before churchgoing political activists, but also to act as the equivalent of a National Football League miniature training camp for identifying, motivating and getting voters to the polls.
Many attendees agreed, after Mr. Cain addressed the conference banquet on Saturday night, that the man who had turned around the failing Godfather’s Pizza chain was the only candidate who “blew away” the audience.
The appearance capped another big week for a candidate once considered a GOP long shot - including a strong Gallup Poll showing, a favorable New York Times portrait of the reaction to his campaign among conservatives and an appearance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” where he said he doesn’t have to out-fundraise Mr. Romney to win.
“There are two dynamics that have changed the political landscape - the power of the Internet, as well as the citizens’ tea party movement. Those dynamics neutralize having the most amount of money,” he said.
Later on Sunday, Mr. Cain flew to New York to address a crowd of 20,000 at a “Salute to Israel” rally in Central Park sponsored by the United Jewish Appeal.
Mr. Reed, who came to prominence in the 1990s as the face of and driving force behind religious broadcaster Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, said that his new coalition, thanks to digital and social media, is doing more than simply passing out candidate report cards to Christians.
“That is a wise accommodation Ralph’s new coalition has made to these changing times,” said Bob McEwen, a former U.S. House member from Ohio. “There may have been a time when operatives could maneuver their candidates in front of a Jewish, Evangelical Christian or agricultural audience, where they could mouth the proper phrases on Israel, life or ethanol and make some progress politically. But technology and social media are changing that.
“Almost any audience is likely to know more about the statements of [former Utah Gov.] Jon Huntsman on cap-and-trade, before he speaks a word than most people knew about Jimmy Carter’s philosophy of government by Election Day,” Mr. McEwen said.
Mr. Reed said his coalition’s goal is to “register and educate, motivate and turn out the largest conservative vote in a presidential election in modern history.”
“Longer term, our goal is to become a permanent institution on the political landscape that will advocate for a constituency of people of faith and their allies similar to the National Rifle Association for gun owners and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for businesses.”
Mr. Reed said his coalition is not in competition with Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council, which sponsors an annual Values Voters Summit in Washington that draws a similar audience. Mr. Reed said the strength of Mr. Perkins’ group is research and policy development, while Mr. Reed’s is voter registration and getting out the vote.
The Reed event added some tea party leaders like Mark Meckler to the usual audience mix of religious and social conservatives.
Mr. Danon told The Washington Times before his speech: “In the past, we were not sure if Obama was confused or biased. Today, we feel he is biased against Israel. He took the side of the Palestinians.”
Asked about the strong evangelical support for Israel, he said, “It’s an easy crowd. I don’t have to convince the people to support Israel unconditionally.”