WASHINGTON — This year, pocketbook issues seem to matter more than pulpit preaching among cultural conservatives and at least some are willing to embrace Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, who many have long looked at skeptically for his reversals on some of their priorities and his Mormon faith.
"No one's perfect," says Larry Smith of Newport Beach, Calif., one of thousands of conservatives gathering in Washington this weekend to hear from the slate of GOP candidates at the annual Values Voters Summit. Smith cast the choice before him as a compromise, and says he's leaning toward the former Massachusetts governor. Even though Romney has strayed from conservative orthodoxy on some social issues in the past, he still posts a strong record as a businessman.
"He has the skills to help us on this particular issue, at this particular time," Smith said.
By that, he means the economy, with its stubbornly high 9.1 percent unemployment rate and sluggish growth.
If interviews with conference attendees are any indication, that's what is giving Romney his best shot at winning over some of the social and Christian conservatives who he failed to attract in his first campaign in 2008. He couldn't overcome skepticism of his Mormon faith and his record of reversing himself on issues like abortion rights and gay rights.
Both subjects are starting to percolate in this campaign.
In a speech to the conservatives Friday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry criticized Romney for his shifting position on abortion, without ever using his chief rival's name.
"For some candidates, pro-life is an election-year slogan to follow the prevailing political winds," Perry said in a speech that at times felt more like a sermon than a political pitch.
Later, the pastor who earlier had endorsed and introduced Perry spoke to reporters – and called Mormonism a cult.
"Rick Perry's a Christian. He's an evangelical Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ," said Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas. "Mitt Romney's a good moral person, but he's not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity."
Perry quickly distanced himself from the comment.
Asked by reporters Friday night in Tiffin, Iowa, whether Mormonism is a cult, Perry replied, "No."
Romney was speaking Saturday to the gathering.
It came same week that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie both announced they would not run for president, leaving donors and grass-roots conservatives up for grabs – and giving Romney an opportunity to try to cast himself as the candidate who can appeal to a broad swath of the GOP.
The cultural conservatives gathered here aren't a natural fit for him with others like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum – who have long championed their causes – in the race.
But many of the roughly two dozen interviewed indicated that because the GOP field lacks a candidate that perfectly fits their wish list, they were willing to consider backing someone who doesn't stack up perfectly but who may have the strongest chance at beating President Barack Obama. Many said Romney may well fit the bill.
"If you go with your gut, that's fine. But I would lean toward the person who is more electable," said Johnny Lee, a 57-year-old federal worker from the Washington area. He is considering backing Romney, as well as Georgia business executive Herman Cain and Santorum. Among Lee's many considerations is who would fare best at the ballot boxes against Obama.
"If you're going with your values and there aren't enough people who share those values, you're not going to win the change in leadership this country needs," Lee said. "And we need a change."
At this venue at least, it seems that activists aren't heeding Bachmann's warnings not to settle for a candidate who isn't rock solid on their issues.
"It's time for the Republican Party to nominate someone who will lead the whole country," said Chris Balkema, a 40-year-old Caterpillar employee from Channahon, Ill. "We don't need to settle. But we need someone will lead the left, right and center of this country, while defending the Constitution."
Balkema said that could be Romney, although he wasn't ruling out others.
Even so, Bachmann – who is a favorite of tea partyers, home schooling parents and grassroots activists – pitched herself as a pure conservative voters need, and urged them not to choose a moderate candidate who might not share their values.
"Conservatives, we can have it all this year because Barack Obama will be a one-term president," she said, bringing the audience to its feel late Friday evening. "Let's finally have one of us in the White House."
She then hinted at Romney's changing shape on abortion rights and gay rights.
"You won't find YouTube clips of me speaking in support of Roe vs. Wade. You won't find me hemming and hawing when it comes to defining marriage as between one man and one woman."
Some agree with her.
"We chose someone last time who was willing to cross the aisle on anything," said Dwayne Owens, a 67-year-old from Southside, Ala., pointing to 2008's unsuccessful presidential nominee Sen. John McCain. "We can't nominate someone whose sole message is compromise. We need someone who is willing to get in a dogfight."
Associated Press writer Kasie Hunt contributed to this report.
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