Leading Republican politicians warned fiscally conservative and religiously devout voters Friday not to impose "purity" tests on candidates seeking the party's 2012 presidential nomination.
"In politics, purity is the enemy of victory," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told an audience of approximately 400 attendees at the first annual Faith and Freedom Coalition conference at the Renaissance Downtown Hotel in Washington. "We can't expect our [presidential] candidate to be pure. Winning is about unity, not purity."
Barbour's friendly but stern admonition carries weight because even though he opted, after much deliberation, not to run for the presidency, he is still widely regarded as one of the party's savviest strategists and most prodigious fundraisers. He spoke as the GOP presidential field continues to settle, with aspirants each week announcing either their intention to join the contest to unseat President Obama, or to watch it from the sidelines or seek lower office.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, obliquely addressing the Tea Party voters who have sometimes exalted their own candidates over those selected by the GOP establishment, echoed Barbour's call to unity. "The Republican Party is not in competition with the conservative movement," Priebus said with an almost plaintive tone. "The Republican Party is part of the conservative movement."
Ralph Reed, the longtime GOP strategist and founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, warned against the opposite of ideological rigidity: apathy. He noted the "frightening statistic" that in 2008, an estimated 17 million Americans who identified themselves as evangelical Christians were either not registered to vote or failed to go to the polls. He also claimed that one of every five voters who called themselves "conservative" that year voted for Mr. Obama.
"Now Barack Obama is going to have a billion dollars, he's going to have Air Force One, and he's going to have the power of the federal government and every single special interest in America in his back pocket," Reed said Friday. "So I'm telling you we're going to have to work harder than we've ever worked. We're going to have to rearrange our lives if we're going to be able to triumph over that kind of political machine. And more importantly we're going to have to pray... It's not by might nor by strength but by His power that this country will be turned back to Him."
Other politicians who may yet choose to run for the presidency - and who will face as their first primary season test the challenge of swaying the Republican Party's most conservative segments - also addressed the conference, including Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
A familiar face to Christian evangelicals and like-minded attendees of this and similar conferences, Bachmann enjoyed rousing ovations, while the lesser-known Huntsman, who spent the last two years serving as U.S. ambassador to China under President Obama, received only polite applause. Reed introduced Huntsman as a "good conservative" who had worked under President Reagan and taken pains to meet with Chinese dissidents. Huntsman, for his part, opened his talk with a humorous digression - in Chinese - and spoke in moving terms of having adopted two daughters from overseas nations.
Bachmann's loudest applause came when she exhorted the audience to "be of good cheer," because they will succeed in repealing "Obamacare," and when she rebuked the president for what she termed his "shocking display" of disloyalty to Israel. Referring to the president's assertion last month that Israel should accept its 1967 borders as the basis for future territorial negotiations with the Palestinians, Bachmann argued that Mr. Obama had effectively told the Jewish state: "You need to give up yet more land, shrink to your '67 borders, and, as a matter of fact, cut your nation in two, so you're separated from each other to indefensible borders, and give that land away to the Palestinians."
In fact, it is the Palestinians whose territory has long been partitioned into two - the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - and not even a return to the 1967 borders, which the Israelis have in any case emphatically rejected, would result in Israel being similarly partitioned.
But Bachmann was not the only speaker who trafficked in factually dubious claims. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California contrasted Ronald Reagan's vision of America as a "shining city upon a hill" with McCarthy's recollection of watching President Jimmy Carter "put on a sweater and tell us our best days were behind us."
McCarthy's reference was to Carter's nationally televised address of July 30, 1979 - popularly referred to as the "malaise" speech, although Carter never used that word, and one that badly damaged Carter's public standing. Still, nowhere in the speech did Carter tell the American people that their country's best days were behind them, as McCarthy claimed. While he spoke of a "crisis in confidence," Carter also noted the country's "unmatched economic power and military might," and ended the speech with the declaration: "Working together with our common faith, we cannot fail."
And then there was Georgia Rep. Tom Price, the trained orthopedic doctor now serving in his fourth term in Congress, who also lit into "Obamacare," the derisive nickname used for the health care overhaul that President Obama signed into law last year. "As a physician," Price said, "I can tell you that Obamacare is the furthest reach of oppression that this society has ever seen."
This claim posits the health care law as more oppressive than, say, the illegal internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Bachmann also delivered the gathering's strongest condemnation of Planned Parenthood, the national organization that counsels women on reproductive issues and helps provide them with access to abortions. In particular, Bachmann faulted the Obama administration for supporting the group. "We're giving money to corrupt organizations like Planned Parenthood, that are committing crimes, enabling young minor girls, and covering up issues," Bachmann said. "I don't even want to talk about it because it's so disgusting." She also made reference to "the trafficking of underage girls that has gone on under Planned Parenthood's nose."
Bachmann's aides said her comment was a reference to Planned Parenthood's recent decision to fire an employee who was caught on videotape appearing to give advice to an undercover conservative activist posing as a pimp.
"For more than 95 years, tens of millions of women and teens have trusted our doctors and nurses to provide them with the care they need," Planned Parenthood said in a statement Friday after Bachmann's comments. "Planned Parenthood takes very seriously the trust placed in us by the public."
Fox News' John Brandt and James Schneider contributed to this article.