- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2015

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will have a difficult time gaining traction among the religious conservative voters who make up a sizable chunk of the Republican primary electorate, attendees said at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference last week, designed to give social-issues voters a chance to test the Republican Party presidential hopefuls.

He is just one of the candidates who will face the kinds of challenges that former Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 and Sen. John McCain in 2008 had — and surmounted — en route to winning the Republican Party nominations. But both men lost the general elections, reinforcing a widely shared believe among many conservatives that Republicans must take a proactive stand on social issues if they are to win next year.

“We can’t go to a McCain and we can’t go to a Romney,” said Terri Johannessen, one of more than 1,000 who turned out for the Washington conference, which drew about a dozen Republican candidates and potential candidates for president.

Ms. Johannessen said Mr. Bush, for whom she voted twice in Florida, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich fit that same mold.

“I think the people look at it like that,” she said. “The biggest comment I have had in Florida is that Jeb Bush is the one who the establishment has picked. They perceive Jeb being picked like [the establishment] picked Romney and McCain.”

Peter Jedick of Ohio was more open to Mr. Christie and Mr. Kasich, but he said he would not get behind Mr. Bush in the primary for the simple reason that “I don’t think we need another Bush.”

“I think he could be a great president, but I don’t think we need three Bushes,” Mr. Jedick said, alluding to his father, George H.W. Bush, and brother, George W. Bush. “Jut like we don’t need two Clintons.”

The three-day Faith and Freedom “Road to Majority” conference gave the Republican presidential candidates an early opportunity to test their appeal with conservative leaders and activists who are expected to play key roles in the nomination race, particularly in early contests in Iowa and South Carolina, which have large numbers of evangelical voters.

Mr. Bush shared the story of how he converted to Catholicism, saying it has “been an organizing part of my architecture, if you will, as a person and certainly as an elected official.”

He said his religion guided him as governor, including his push for stricter abortion restrictions and a partial-birth abortion ban, and his intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo, who was in a persistent vegetative state fed by machines.

He said religious liberty is under attack and “we need to make sure that we protect the right not just of having religious views but the right of acting on those views.”

On marriage, he said, “We should not push aside those that do believe in traditional marriage.

“I, for one, believe it’s important, and I think it’s got to be important over the long haul, irrespective of what courts say,” he said.

Mr. Bush, Mr. Christie and Mr. Kasich were among the candidates and potential candidates at the conference whom voters deemed “moderate.”

Mr. Christie used his speech to advocate for drug treatment and rehabilitation programs, saying it was an extension of his pro-life view, and challenged the social conservatives to expand their own approach.

“When you’re pro-life, you need to be pro-life for the whole life,” Mr. Christie said. “The easiest — the easiest time to be pro-life is when a child is in the womb. They haven’t done anything yet to disappoint us. It becomes much harder to be pro-life when they’re drug-addicted on the floor of the jail cell. That is a gift from God as well.”

Mr. Kasich said his religion has given him confidence and strength to shrug off criticism and that he was “called” to run for governor.

“I don’t believe in shoving my views down anybody’s throat, but I know I got a road map,” Mr. Kasich said.

Attendees said they were happy to hear the various views, though it was clear they were most eager to hear from the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“This is the fifth national Christian event that I have seen Ted Cruz at this year,” said Colorado state Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt. “So he is connecting with social conservatives in a way that others are not.”

Mrs. Johannessen said evangelicals sense that Mr. Cruz will be a warrior for the religions right.

“It doesn’t mean you don’t like John Kasich, you don’t like Chris Christie or you don’t like Jeb Bush,” she said. “But I just like what I hear from Ted Cruz. I just think he is so sincere, and I think he really believes in the Constitution, and I think he sees firsthand that the country is just lost unless we turn it around.”

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