Ralph Reed’s now annual Faith & Freedom Coalition conference in Washington last week drew a surprisingly small audience of mostly Protestant evangelical political activists — but still attracted a bevy of Republican political stars.
The audience of fewer than 400 was a fraction of the thousands who once thronged Pat Robertson’s annual Christian Coalition “Road to the White House” when it reigned as the premier event for rallying religious conservatives in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Mr. Reed is a political consultant, one-time candidate for lieutenant governor of Georgia and born-again Christian. Mr. Robertson, who was honored at an FFC banquet Friday evening, has international renown, in large part because of his long-running syndicated TV show, “The 700 Club,” where comments he has made over the years have been castigated by some fellow evangelicals.
He won the fame and the notoriety that Mr. Reed never came close to achieving.
In 1976, Mr. Robertson predicted that the world would end no later than November 1982, which turned out to be the second year of President Reagan’s first administration. He has linked destructive hurricanes to God’s displeasure with the acceptance of homosexuality in America.
“I really believe I’m hearing from the Lord it’s going to be like a blowout election [in favor of George W. Bush] in 2004,” he once said of an election that turned out to be one of the closest in U.S. history.
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But Mr. Robertson’s renown and perceived influence over millions of Christian voters won him the courtship of virtually every major Republican presidential aspirant for a decade after he lost his own bid for the nomination in 1988.
The difference in audience drawing power between Mr. Reed’s organization and Mr. Robertson’s — over which Mr. Reed had presided as executive director — bears little correlation, however, with the current coalition’s attraction for politicians on the right.
What the CC and its successor, the FFC, still share is a gravitational pull on many of the best-known and most ambitious Republican politicians from across the country.
Still, smaller isn’t necessarily better when it comes to inclusiveness, former Christian Coalition leaders noted privately Saturday at the close of the three-day conference billed as “The Road to a Majority.”
Of the four Republicans thought to constitute the first tier of 2016 presidential nomination aspirants at this point — Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — two did not get to show off their wares to the general conference audience.
Mr. Walker did not make the trip from Madison at all, and Mr. Cruz’s only appearance was at a 5 p.m. reception in the Mansfield Room of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.
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Second- and third-tier potential 2016 nomination seekers did appear, along with federal lawmakers with reputations of strongly held religious beliefs.
Always talked up as a possible presidential contender, Friday’s banquet keynoter Donald Trump took shots at 2000 Bush presidential campaign strategist Karl Rove, President Obama, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and even Mr. Rubio. The Celebrity Apprentice host also repeated his assertion (greeted with dead silence from the audience) that the rest of the world no longer respects the United States.
At the same banquet, about 300 guests rose in the middle of their dinner to hear an extended version of the National Anthem, with old and new verses. After sitting back down, some bemused guests hurriedly resumed eating — in case they might be called upon to rise once more for the Pledge of Allegiance.
What many people who follow politics but do not attend such gatherings wanted to know — according to email, Twitter and Facebook exchanges — was who among the possible candidates got the warmest reception.
Most attendees interviewed thought that prize went to either Mr. Rubio, who is of Hispanic descent, or Mr. Paul, who is not. On being pressed for reasons, however, respondents often switched choices or came up with other names — most often Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, followed by Sarah Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Mrs. Palin, who has revealed little inclination to seek the party nomination, nonetheless won the warmest nod for a speech that most moved the audience at the close of the conference.
“I’m speaking on behalf of you who love this country and value life and our kids, some who will perhaps face more challenges than the rest,” said the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, who knew before giving birth that her child Trig would be afflicted with Down syndrome.
“We understand the dignity of human life,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “We understand there are God’s standards of perfection that really count. Then the world’s standards of perfection that are superficial and often materialistic and don’t matter.”
She added: “You all know what really matters.”
Though moved, Amy Jones, a Dexter, Mich., senior at Hillsdale College, thought the “warmest reception went to Marco Rubio on Thursday, and the biggest buzz afterward was for him.”
She named 2012 Republican contender Herman Cain as the “most energetic speaker” — though there is no indication he plans another national run.
Some judged Mr. Perry, whose 2012 candidacy flopped early — after back surgery — to have turned in the surprise performance. The buzz in his case was that Mr. Perry was, as Susan A. Carleson put it, “what people expected last time and didn’t get.”
“He was very funny yet substantive, as if he had been unleashed,” said Mrs. Carleson, chairwoman of the American Civil Rights Union. “He came across as very Christian, down to earth, very human.”
Miss Jones later said what she “really appreciated was Rand Paul’s tackling the issue of religious freedom.”
“Doing that at a conference like this is good. We truly have to get back to the idea of freedom of religion,” she said.
Miss Jones seconded a lot of other attendees in singling out Mr. Johnson.
“In all honesty, Ron Johnson’s speech was the great one,” she said. “What stuck out in my mind was his saying we need to take our government back to what’s important to the family in American life.”
Mr. Johnson is among the least-known members of the U.S. Senate. Mr. Paul is one of the best-known. There is no established correlation between speech performance and ultimate nomination victory — in either party.