The two elderly gentlemen manning a booth at the back of the Regency ballroom in Washington, D.C.’s Omni hotel on Friday stood for a photographer and unfurled a banner: “Run, Ben, Run!” At the booth, one of many at this year’s Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, they were distributing petitions to draft Ben Carson, the surgeon who ignited conservatives when he criticized President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast last year, as well as Carson ’16 bumper stickers and a pamphlet urging supporters to clamor and pray on his behalf.
“We’re trying to convince him to run for president,” one of the men told me. “He’s a hard sell.”
On stage at the front of the ballroom, more plausible 2016 presidential candidates delivered remarks to the crowd — Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz on Thursday, Rand Paul and Chris Christie on Friday.
Surveying it all from the green room backstage was Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition who founded the nonprofit Faith and Freedom Coalition in 2009. The annual conference puts the potential presidential contenders through their paces before a socially conservative audience, particularly important in early primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina. This is a scrimmage for both the candidates and the activists in attendance. Entrance and exit polls in the 2012 presidential election showed that 50 percent of Republican primary voters are either white Evangelical or born-again Christians.
Reed puts it bluntly: “There is no path to the nomination without getting your fair share of that vote.”
“I think it’s of value to them and I think that’s why they’re here,” Reed says. He points out that it’s perhaps the first time that Chris Christie has addressed a socially conservative audience on a national level. “I thought Christie surprised a lot of people with some of the things he said,” Reed says. “He didn’t surprise me because I know him and I’ve followed his record.”
The New Jersey governor argued on Friday, as he did in the Garden State earlier this week, that the pro-life platform should extend beyond the abortion issue to things like rehabilitating non-violent drug offenders. “I believe if you’re pro-life, as I am, you need to be pro-life for the whole life,” he said. On Wednesday, Christie made an emergency medication that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose available to emergency medical technicians across the state of New Jersey and has for years now pushed to expand a program that would mandate rehab rather than jail time for non-violent drug offenders.
It is the freshman senator from Kentucky, however, who seems to appeal to Reed the most. Reed himself is a former southern politician who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of Georgia in 2006. Reed calls Paul an “intriguing figure” because of his ability to speak compellingly to social conservatives but also to reach people who don’t traditionally support Republicans. “Rand kind of has a one-two punch,” he says.
Paul, who has spoken at several Faith and Freedom Coalition events previously, sounded more preacher than politician on Friday. The moral foundation of the United States is “cracking,” he said, calling for a revival of faith among Americans. Cries of “Amen! Amen!” came from the crowd, which included a man dressed in colonial garb, complete with a tricorne, waving the yellow Gadsden flag that has come to symbolize the tea-party movement. The Kentucky senator also called for an end to foreign aid to any country that persecutes Christians. “There’s a war on Christianity going on and sometimes you’re being asked to pay for it,” Paul said. “I say not one penny to any country that persecutes Christians.” The audience responded: “Yes! Yes!”
One issue not much discussed in the remarks of any of the speakers who graced the stage was gay marriage. Asked whether he would have liked to hear more about it, Reed is agnostic. He says he defers to the judgment of the politicians with regard to “what issues they want to stress.” He knows, he says, that virtually all of the guests this weekend “believe marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman.” “That’s what the Republican platform says, and I don’t expect that to change,” he said.