Values Voter Summit Sees 2012 Hopefuls Testing Waters, Punch Lines

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., speaks to the Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council Action, Friday, Sept. 17, 2010, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., speaks to the Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council Action, Friday, Sept. 17, 2010, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Mitt Romney swayed from side to side, paused at just the right moments, twinkled when twinkling was called for, and otherwise flawlessly adopted the mannerisms of a late night talk show comedian -- albeit an older, more restrained model, of the Johnny Carson era, eschewing the edgy profanity of a Jon Stewart or Chelsea Handler -- as he tried out new punch lines on the core conservative faithful who will prove central to any presidential run he might make in 2012.

So, the former Massachusetts governor told the estimated audience of 2,000 at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, it's been a rough year for President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "Their numbers," Romney said, "have gone down the chute faster than a Jet Blue flight attendant." He identified the Obama administration as the first to declare war on free enterprise, and then quipped: "Isn't it fitting that those who have such contempt for the private sector will soon find themselves back in it?"

Nor was Romney alone in sporting a comedy flight suit, speedily testing out new material. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a former TV newsman and current member of the House GOP leadership, joked about the new movie now playing in Nevada: "When Harry Met Sharron." (For those who are neither political junkies nor movie buffs, Pence's punch line references the tight Senate contest pitting Reid against GOP candidate Sharron Angle, and plays off the 1989 Billy Crystal-Meg Ryan comedy, "When Harry Met Sally.")

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee complained that it took President Obama three months to realize that the BP oil spill was a disaster that required presidential attention. "What I wish would have happened," Huckabee joked about the White House chief of staff and Interior secretary, "is that Rahm Emanuel should have sent a dead fish to Secretary Salazar. That might have prevented a whole bunch of dead fish in the Gulf Coast."

Buoyed by the emergence of the Tea Party movement, the upheavals of Tuesday's primary results, and the prospect of strong GOP gains in the November midterm elections, Values Voters appeared in better spirits than they did a year ago, when they last converged on the Omni Shoreham Hotel. To this I can attest from personal experience: At last year's summit, angry attendees interrupted my live report from the Regency Ballroom, displeased that I was broadcasting live while Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was addressing the crowd. They did the same to the MSNBC reporter whose live report preceded my own by a few minutes. The moment has been immortalized on YouTube, to my eternal chagrin.

This year, event organizers told attendees at the outset to be respectful of TV reporters who might spend a few minutes during the speeches broadcasting from the rear of the ballroom; and they assigned a beefy security guard to stand sentinel while I did my business, at 11 a.m. sharp, with "Happening Now" anchors Jon Scott and Jenna Lee. No one rushed the riser to accost me; the security guard looked bored. And I learned that the man who can be seen on YouTube hassling me at last year's event -- who I spied this time around, from a distance -- is actually a mild-mannered pastor whose wife serves on the board of directors for the group that sponsors the summit, the Family Research Council.

Only five years after its founding, the Values Voter Summit has become a must-attend event for conservative politicians and authors, activists and true believers. A portable bookstore peddles the latest hardcover and paperback offerings from the likes of Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Bill Bennett, and Matthew Spalding. A full-scale exhibit hall resembles a Judeo-Christian comic book convention, with pretty young women offering passersby slickly produced cards saying things like JESUS WAS INVOLVED IN POLITICS!, with the WAS scratched out and replaced by the word IS.

Between speeches by Sean Hannity and the parents of the Arkansas-based Duggar family, stars of a TLC reality show about their nineteen children, attendees can settle into breakout panel discussions entitled "Why Christians Should Support Israel," "Who's Politicizing Science? The Obama Administration's War on Life," and "American Apocalypse: When Christians Do Nothing, Secularists Do Everything."

FRC President Tony Perkins told Fox News the event, which offers attendees different "packages" at different costs, essentially pays for itself, with no proceeds for the Council, and co-sponsors like the Heritage Foundation and Liberty University, to divvy up. Only those speakers the crowd will "identify with" are invited to appear, Perkins said, except in presidential election years, when more of an effort at fairness is made. "There's something about gathering with like-minded people who understand the nexus of fiscal conservatism, social conservatism, and national defense," Perkins said. "These are well-rounded conservatives."

Perkins said FRC sees the Tea Party movement as a "natural ally," even if the movement is more singly focused on such seemingly areligious issues as fiscal policy and the size of the federal government. "I see it as a civic awakening," Perkins said. "And they're getting up off the sofa, they're turning off the TV, and they're making a difference. Now we realize that's got to go a step further for America to be changed....We're looking for that moral awakening, as well."

Perkins agrees that "failed fiscal policy" is at "the forefront" of the national discussion, but argues that big spending in Washington "emanates from a moral worldview" the FRC seeks to change, in tandem -- if not lockstep -- with the Tea Partiers. "We're not looking for the Tea Party to carry our message, and they're not looking for us to carry their message," he told Fox News.

One nexus between the two groups is Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican who endorsed Christine O'Donnell for the GOP Senate nomination in Delaware, much to the consternation of the official party structure there. (O'Donnell was scheduled to speak at an afternoon session.) DeMint fairly reveled in the enthusiastic applause from the Values Voters that greeted him as he took the ballroom stage. "Oh, boy, I needed that this morning," he said, pacing the stage Donahue-style. "It's been a rough week here in Washington. Some of our establishment friends are not real happy with me -- or you! So I think we're in good company today."

James Rosen joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 1999 and is the network’s chief Washington correspondent.