GOP candidates head to DC

A cadre of GOP presidential contenders will be in Washington on Friday and Saturday to attend one of the campaign’s first major cattle calls since the field has taken shape.

The Faith and Freedom Conference, a conservative gathering hosted by Christian activist Ralph Reed, will host several of the candidates hoping to capture the GOP nomination. 

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But one big name will be missing. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who was scheduled to speak, abruptly canceled his engagement Thursday, citing scheduling conflicts. Instead, Gingrich will send a video message to attendees.

The event, organized by Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC), gives candidates a chance to polish their appeals to two distinct groups in the conservative movement: social and fiscal conservatives.

Gary Marx, FFC’s executive director, said the aim of the conference is to unite both groups under one roof and build momentum for 2012 with a broader coalition. 

“I think we have a scenario where most of the audience that these candidates will be speaking to walk and chew gum,” he said. “They are fully integrated conservatives.”

Other Republican hopefuls who are scheduled to speak include former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty,

Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Rep. Ron Paul (Texas),

former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.).

Billionaire businessman Donald Trump, who bowed out of the presidential race last month, will also address the crowd, as will Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who likewise has decided against a run.

Several GOP politicians who have received presidential or vice presidential buzz will be there as well. Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), and Reps. Allen West (Fla.), Mike Pence (Ind.) and Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.) all plan to speak.

A lingering question from Romney’s 2008 presidential run is whether the influential bloc of evangelical voters will look past his Mormon faith when going to the polls.

Marx downplayed any concerns about Mormonism in this cycle’s contest, citing the fact that Huntsman (the Mormon ex-governor of Utah) has indicated he’ll run and that conservative commentator Glenn Beck, who is also Mormon, will be in attendance.

“I think that’s not really an 

issue. … [H]e addressed [it] four years ago,” Marx said.

The event also indicates that Reed is looking to play powerbroker role in the 2012 election cycle.

Reed helped spark the rise of the religious right as director of the Christian Coalition in the 1990s, but his reputation was tarnished by his ties to convicted GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In 2006, the year Abramoff was convicted on federal criminal charges, Reed lost the Republican primary for lieutenant governor of Georgia in what was his first run for office.

Reed, an experienced grassroots organizer, is looking to capture the momentum of the Tea Party to help boost his organization’s impact in 2012.

“I truly believe that the movement that you all have birthed ... is one of the most transformational social reform movements not in my lifetime, not in your lifetime, but in the history of the country, and we will not rest until we restore this nation to the principles upon which she was founded,” he told a gathering of activists at the Tea Party Patriots policy summit in March.