ATLANTA – Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have gotten much of the attention in these early days of the Republican race for president, but as they court the party's elite donors in private phone calls and meetings, a group of likely candidates to their right are just as eagerly chasing support among Christian evangelicals and social conservatives.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal led a prayer rally that filled the basketball arena at Louisiana State University on Saturday. Called "The Response," organizers billed the event as a national call to pray "for a nation that has not honored God in our success or humbly called on him in our struggles."
Retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson spoke and attended services this weekend at Houston's Second Baptist Church as part of the mammoth congregation's "If My People" conference, pitched as an effort to "restore the soul of America."
Carson also appeared Saturday, along with several other possible candidates that included Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, before a crowd of several hundred devoted social conservatives in Iowa, where GOP Rep. Steve King hosted his Freedom Summit. Romney and Bush did not attend.
"This is important, and it tells everybody who either is a believer or a nonbeliever what a candidate's world view is," said the Rev. Gary Moore, senior associate pastor for the Houston church that invited Carson. "Out of their world view comes everything else on every kind of issue."
Veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres, whose clients include Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 candidate, said social conservatives nationally amount to just "20 to 25 percent" of Republican primary voters. But they make up a much larger share of Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses and are significant in South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary a few weeks later. To win the GOP nomination, a candidate must be "at least acceptable" to primary voters who identify first as social and religious conservatives.
The party also includes self-identified "chamber of commerce" Republicans, national security-foreign affairs hawks, tea party fiscal conservatives and libertarians. "There is obviously overlap," Ayres said. "But it's hard to quantify just where the overlap is, so no candidate can afford to be identified exclusively with one faction."
Jindal, who was raised Hindu but converted to Catholicism in college, has tried recently to marry religious conservatism with tough foreign policy. During a recent trip to Europe, Jindal drew international attention for echoing a Fox News commentator who asserted that radical Muslims have taken over some neighborhoods in Europe, a notion for which British Prime Minister David Cameron called the commentator "complete idiot." Fox later apologized, but Jindal stood by his claim, telling CNN that "radical Islam is a threat to our way of life."
At his event in Baton Rouge on Saturday, which Jindal has insisted was not a political event, the governor said, "We can't just elect a candidate to fix our country. ... We need a spiritual revival to fix our country."
At a South Carolina tea party convention earlier this month, as Cruz hammered President Barack Obama's fiscal and foreign policies, he worked in details of his relationship with his minister in Houston and prayer sessions he's held with pastors in the city. And his father, the Rev. Rafael Cruz, an evangelical pastor, spent the entire weekend huddling with activists on his son's behalf.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Jindal, Cruz and other conservatives also tout their support for Israel, aligning themselves with evangelicals who cite the Judeo-Christian scriptural account of an ancient covenant establishing Israelites as God's "chosen people."
This week, Huckabee will visit North Carolina's First Baptist Church of Charlotte. The ticketed event, which promises to draw from neighboring South Carolina, is built around Huckabee's new book, but his writings in "God, Guns, Grits and Gravy" serve as primer for the ordained Baptist minister's politics and potential campaign.
The Rev. Mark Harris, senior pastor of the Charlotte congregation that Huckabee will visit, said the notion of a Republican Party divided into the different constituencies is overblown. Harris cited his failed bid for Senate last year and noted how he went on to endorse and campaign for now-Sen. Thom Tillis, generally viewed in that primary as the business establishment candidate.
But the balance still isn't easy, as several would-be presidents in Iowa tacitly acknowledged.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Catholic from a Democratic-leaning state, isn't a favorite among most Protestant evangelicals and made sure Saturday to emphasize his personal opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage. But, he cautioned, "If you want a candidate who agrees with you 100 percent of the time, I'll give you a suggestion: Go home and look in the mirror. You are the only person you agree with 100 percent of the time," he said.
At the same event, Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses, warned, "We don't need to spend the next two years beating each other up in the conservative tent. We need to tell America what's right with this country."
Just last week in Washington, Republican House leaders abandoned a proposal to restrict abortion after 20 weeks, popular among social conservatives for whom issues related to abortion are paramount, amid concerns that it could hurt the party with younger and female voters.
Harris, even as he called for party unity, said such moves risk alienating evangelicals, whom he argued helped cost the GOP the past two presidential elections by not voting in the general election.
"When you don't speak to our issues, you make a mistake," he said.