Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks at the Values Voter Summit in… (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — Republican politicians took steps Friday to assure social conservatives that their concerns about the moral direction of the country would not be overlooked in the November election and beyond, as the surging "tea party" movement and sputtering economy force pocketbook issues to the forefront.
A lineup of Republicans addressed 2,000 activists gathered Friday at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, a two-day conference hosted by the advocacy group Family Research Council. As in years past, the meeting was a showcase of rising Republican stars, including the newly nominated candidate for Senate in Delaware, Christine O'Donnell, as well as some believed to be planning a bid for the White House in 2012.
"Ours is not so much a fiscal crisis, it's a family crisis," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told the group. "There is a direct correlation between the stability of the family and stability of our country."
Added former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: "I'm afraid that some in Washington today are driven by such different values that they would change the very character of America."
The conference's unofficial theme was bridging the insurgent "tea party" movement, whose focus is fiscal and constitutional conservatism, with the socially conservative voters that for years have driven the Republican Party's grassroots operations.
As the tea party has captured a growing share of influence within the GOP and the economy has dominated the political agenda, these largely Christian voters have watched as candidates devote less time to the issues that motivate them, such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
Few speakers Friday were as well positioned as O'Donnell to find common ground between the groups. The former abstinence advocate who on Tuesday rode the tea party movement to a surprise primary victory described social conservatives as the first tea partyers.
"Those of us who have toiled for years in the values movement found ourselves surrounded by Americans who had rediscovered the most fundamental value of all, liberty," O'Donnell told the audience in a packed ballroom.
Organizers downplayed differences between the conservative groups. In an interview, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins estimated that 99% of social activists attending had attended a tea party rally. Later, in a show of hands, the vast majority in the room said they had indeed attended such a rally.
The groups seemed united on several issues. The crowd cheered speakers who criticized President Obama's healthcare bill and who called for cuts in government regulation.
Republican leaders are seeking ways to engage both the tea party and social conservatives, with House GOP leaders preparing to list their top legislative priorities to guide campaigns across the country.
The list is expected to reflect tea party concerns over debt, constitutional limits and federal spending. It is less clear how many social issues, such as abortion funding or marriage, would be included.
Perkins said he has been working with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R- Ohio) to advocate for those issues and expected them to be in the new document.
"The last thing they need is a fight over those issues," he said.
For Romney, Obama was the primary target. Picking up where his 2008 presidential bid left off, he blasted the president for diverting his attention from the economy.
"If he or his economic advisor had any experience in the private sector, he would have known that the first three rules for any turnaround are: focus, focus and focus," said Romney, a former corporate executive, condemning the administration's attention to healthcare.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) boasted of his role in promoting intraparty challenges across the country in primaries this year.
"I've been working for that past year to stir up some vigorous primaries between establishment Republicans and Republicans who stand up for those principles of freedom," he said. "We got some candidates that we can be proud of. When they get to Washington, they're going to stand up for you and millions of Americans who for years have felt ignored."