The event also doubles as an audition for the field of 2012 hopefuls,
all eager to claim a slice of the social-conservative voting bloc up
for grabs with Mike Huckabee's absence from the race. The primary's two
early front-runners, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, are both set to talk on Friday night in a
pair of speeches that will be heavily scrutinized.
For evangelicals, a critical part of George W. Bush's winning
coalitions in 2000 and 2004, keeping social conservatism relevant has
been the challenge since the economic collapse of 2008. Polls show that
even GOP voters are overwhelmingly focused on issues like taxes and
government spending, not abortion and gay marriage.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who last month opted not to run for
president, took flak for calling for a "truce" on social issues. Most
Republicans, however, were far more focused on his calls to eliminate
the country's deficit.
Republican candidates need to offer a well-rounded message, Marx
said, that can't back down from core social-conservative principles.
"I think that there was a pretty strong reaction and whiplash effect
to those who push forward this truce paradigm, and I think that across
the board all of those looking at running in 2012 could see that," he
said. "I think they can go back and look at a candidacy like Rudy
Giuliani in 2008, which was also a one-trick, national security-focused
campaign, and learn the lesson that you can't just be focused on one
issue area and be the nominee."
In addition to legislative and presidential heavyweights, the
conference agenda includes speakers high on entertainment value. On the
same night Pawlenty and Romney will talk, celebrity businessman Donald
Trump and Fox News host Glenn Beck also are on the agenda.
The most anticipated speech, however, might come from Jon Huntsman,
Utah's former Republican governor, who just finished up a stint as
President Obama's ambassador to China. Although he's seen as one of
the candidates most likely to secure the GOP nomination, Huntsman only
just started to hit the campaign trail and is still relatively
unknown to most Republicans.
"I think he's the real wild card at this point," said Marx. "People
will approach with open minds because they don't know much about him,
good or bad."
Of the major presidential contenders, only former House speaker Newt
Gingrich won't be in attendance. Spokesman Rick Tyler said Gingrich and
his wife, Callista, scheduled a one-week vacation before he was asked to
speak at the conference.
Image credit: Steve Pope/Getty Images