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Republicans court evangelicals at faith conference

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican White House hopefuls courted Christian conservative voters Friday at a conference where economic concerns shared the stage with social issues that dominate the evangelical agenda.

Many political speakers at the Faith and Freedom Coalition emphasized jobs, debt and deficits on the day the Labor Department reported the unemployment rate rose to 9.1 percent in May.

"Where's the recovery?" said Representative Paul Ryan, chairman of the House of Representatives Budget Committee, part of a lineup that was to include presidential candidates Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney.

In contrast to some previous presidential campaigns, social issues like gay marriage and abortion have not been prominent topics for Republicans hopefuls seeking to replace President Barack Obama in next year's election.

The weakness of the U.S. economy has triggered a debate within the Republican Party about whether conservatives should call a "truce" on social questions.

The idea is that Republicans would have a better chance at victory in 2012 if they rally around economic issues.

While the economy dominated, there was still plenty of talk about social issues, and the crowd gathered in a hotel ballroom saved their loudest applause for those speakers who brought up these issues.

Republican Representative Michelle Bachmann, who is likely to run for her party's 2012 presidential nomination, emphasized her social conservative roots to the group, saying Americans should push for individual states to pass constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage.

She received a standing ovation when she denounced Obama's healthcare overhaul, which she says encourages abortions.

"We will repeal Obamacare. It will happen," Bachmann said to cheers.

Former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, a moderate Republican considering a 2012 run, attempted to shore up any questions evangelicals have about him by emphasizing his opposition to abortion.

"I do not believe the Republican Party should focus only on our economic plight, to the neglect of our human plight. That is a trade we should not make. If Republicans ignore life, the deficit that we face is one that is much more destructive," he said.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour appealed for unity among fiscal and social conservatives in the party.

Barbour, who considered a run for president but abandoned it, told the group there would not be a "perfect candidate" for them and that "purity is the enemy of victory."

"We're going to nominate somebody for president that doesn't agree with you on everything and you're not going to agree with them on everything. But I'm going to tell you what, they're going to agree with you on a lot more than you agree with Barack Obama," he said.

POWERFUL FORCE

Evangelicals are a powerful force in Republican politics, usually a reliable base of support for the party. And they will be key to victory in Iowa, whose voting contest in January will help set the tone for the 2012 Republican presidential campaign.

Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman Ralph Reed said evangelicals did not turn out as hoped in 2008 and some who did voted for Obama. He said organizers rebounded in 2010, helped Republicans gain the House and pick up seats in the Senate.

"We're not done yet," he said. "We're going to replace Barack Obama with a president we can be proud of."

University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato said the emphasis on economic issues reflects the overall priorities of Americans right now.

"Even among Republicans, if you ask them as a group 'what are you concerned about right now?' it'll be economy, jobs spending, taxes and then you get abortion and gay rights," he said.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Doina Chiacu)

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