WASHINGTON -- A gathering of religious conservatives drew nearly all the GOP presidential hopefuls to a single stage, a claim that a South Carolina debate and a well-publicized forum in New Hampshire couldn't make about their recent events.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition's two-day conference that ended Saturdayproved that the religious right still plays a major role in the nominating process, even if it's less organized than during the Christian Coalition's heyday and economic issues are dominating the early campaign.
The gathering was a tryout for candidates hoping to fill a void left by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. The Southern Baptist minister won the 2008 Iowa caucus but is not running this time.
Most of the candidates spent more time on money issues than on spiritual matters on the opening day of the conference Friday. But they generally portrayed the federal debt and health care policies as moral concerns.
They also paid tribute to religious conservatives who often place abortion, gay marriage and other social issues ahead of questions such as taxes and spending.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman bypassed a large scrum of journalists but did give an interview to the Christian-oriented CBN network.
"I do not believe the Republican Party should focus solely on our economic life to the neglect of our human life," Huntsman told the conference audience of several hundred after citing numerous anti-abortion laws he signed as governor.
Huntsman and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney are Mormons, a group eyed suspiciously by some Christian conservatives. They did not directly mention Mormonism in their remarks.
The Republican contenders who seem to be making the most direct appeals to evangelical voters are former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who didn't attend but sent a video message.