The Values Voter Summit that ended here on Oct. 9 offered a number of key insights into the 2012 presidential campaign, particularly the crowded and increasingly contentious GOP field.
The Family Research Council, which organized the gathering, said it drew more than 3,000 conservatives to hobnob, participate in panel discussions and hear every major GOP candidate except former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
After listening to the speeches, interviewing attendees and chatting with conservative activists, seven trends emerged from the long weekend:
1. Social conservatives have not found their Chosen One.
After holding a high-profile prayer rally in Houston and gaining support from several religious right bigwigs, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was expected to attract a significant number of conservative Christians.
But he was trounced in the Values Voter straw poll on Saturday by Rep. Ron Paul (more on that later), pizza magnate Herman Cain and former Sen. Rick Santorum.
Perry garnered only 8 percent of the nearly 2,000 votes cast, the same percentage as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. Several summit attendees said they were underwhelmed by Perry’s speech on Friday.
After the straw poll results were announced, FRC President Tony Perkins said, “the hearts, minds and passions of values voters are still to be won."
2. Even here, the economy trumped social issues.
Every candidate denounced abortion and gay marriage, and voiced adamant support for Israel. But only Santorum, Bachmann and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich devoted significant portions of their speeches to social issues.
Santorum gave a detailed account of his push to pass the Partial Birth Abortion Act, which became law in 2003. Bachmann’s wide-ranging speech warned of the perils of big government. Gingrich delivered a historical lecture on the proper role of federal judges.
The rest of the candidates, however, focused on their ideas to turn around the sagging economy.
3. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism will be a political issue.
Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, who introduced and excitedly endorsed Perry on Friday (Oct. 7), made headlines when he later told reporters that Mormonism is a “cult” and Romney is not a Christian.
Former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett denounced Jeffress’ “bigotry” on Saturday, saying he stole the candidates’ spotlight and “did Rick Perry no good.”
However, polls show that Jeffress’ opinion is shared by a significant portion of conservative Christians. Most evangelicals do not believe that Mormons are Christian, and, according a May survey by the Pew Research Center, one in three would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate.
4. This time around, Romney will not attempt to explain his faith.
Romney did not directly address the controversy over his faith, or attempt to show its commonalities with conservative Christianity, as he did during his 2008 campaign.
He briefly denounced one Values Voter summit speaker, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, saying that Fischer “has crossed that line” between civil debate and “poisonous language.”
Fischer, who hosts a radio show, has called for Muslims to be deported and argued that only Christians are protected by the First Amendment.
For the most part, though, the former Massachusetts governor stayed on message, hammering President Obama on the direction of the economy and pledging to create jobs.
5. Social conservatives will swallow hard and vote for Romney.
Even Fischer, who called Romney’s criticism “tasteless and tawdry,” said he would rather vote for Romney, if he wins the GOP nomination, than Obama.
“We just cannot afford another four years of Barack Obama,” Fischer said. “When we get to 2012, I’m not staying home and I’m not voting for Barack Obama.”
6. Ron Paul’s supporters know how to win a straw poll.
On Saturday morning, the characteristically buttoned-up Values Voter Summit crowd (think: dark suits and pearl necklaces) was besieged by libertarian-leaning, tattooed young men wearing Ron Paul buttons.
Perkins said 600 people paid $75 to register just for Saturday. Many came to hear Paul speak that morning and left after voting in the straw poll.
That flood-the-zone strategy has helped the Texas congressman take first place in the last two straw polls at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Paul won 732 of the 1,983 (37 percent) votes cast on Saturday.
7. Herman Cain can electrify a crowd.
Romney was smooth, Perry was folksy and Paul was plainspoken. Gingrich waxed historical, Santorum was serious and Bachmann assertive. None of them charged up the crowd like Cain.
He has been a mathematician, the CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and a radio talk show host, but on Friday, Cain sounded most like another of his many professions: Baptist preacher.
Peppering his speech with acerbic humor, clipped cadences and sharp attacks on Obama, Cain drew the loudest laughter and most passionate applause from the overflow audience.
“It took me 12 years and the grace of God to figure out what my journey should be at this point in my life,” Cain said. After a “lot of prayer, a lot of soul searching,” he decided to run for president.
On Saturday, Cain won 23 percent of straw poll voters, trailing only Paul.