Candidates Fighting For The Conservative Heart And Soul In 2012 (The Note)

By MICHAEL FALCONE (@michaelpfalcone) and AMY WALTER ( @amyewalter)

Nearly every major declared or potential Republican presidential candidate made a pilgrimage to an annual conference of social conservatives in Washington, DC over the weekend to pitch themselves to an important bloc of voters.

Conspicuously absent from many of their speeches at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, however, was an extended discussion of traditional social conservative issues.

“Most speakers replaced talk of abortion with talk of debt and deficit. Instead of gay marriage, they focused on the economy,” the National Journal’s Alex Roarty noted, wrapping up the weekend. “Not only was that fine with evangelicals at the conference, most indicated it’s what they prefer.”

Many of the candidates stuck to the ailing economy and lethargic jobs numbers, crticizing President Obama as a failed leader. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney called the nation’s ongoing fiscal woes, “a moral crisis.”

Still, by many accounts, the big crowd pleaser at the conference was Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who ended her speech by leading the conference in a prayer.

“The GOP has a tremendous opportunity,” in 2012 Bachmann told the attendees, “but it won’t be easy.”

Another candidate could also have a big impact on these voters: former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is known as a fighter for social issues. This morning in an interview on “Good Morning America” with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos Santorum officially declared he was running for the GOP presidential nomination.

“We’re going to be in this race, and we’re in it to win it,” Santorum said, noting that his bid already had “a lot of momentum.”

Santorum recently won the New Hampshire Conservative Future PAC's presidential straw poll, coming in ahead of his closest competitors Tim Pawlenty and Ron Paul. But Santorum, who is still somewhere in the low single digits in most national polls, is going to have to do a lot more than that to have a shot at the nomination.

His tactic seems to be to try to carve out a position for himself as the 2012 field’s true conservative. In his “Good Morning America” interview today, he was even willing to criticize House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., for not going far enough in his budget plan.

“I didn’t back down on trying to reform the Social Security system,” Santorum said, recounting his record as a senator. “Not even Paul Ryan had the temerity to step forward and say we have to do Social Security.”

Whether Santorum can use that tough talk on entitlement reform and his reputation as a champion for social conservative causes as a launching pad to the Republican nomination remains to be seen. But that’s going to be his pitch. As he said at the Faith and Freedom Conference on Saturday, “I just don’t take the pledge, I take the bullets.”

BOTTOM LINE: In years past, there's always been a designated slot for the “social conservative” candidate in a GOP primary. This year, however, the combination of a sour economy and the rising Tea Party influence means that social issues have less of a direct influence in the primary contest. This isn't to say that social and cultural issues don't matter to these voters. It’s simply a matter of priorities. And, right now debt and deficit are the drivers of the debate.

PALIN FILMMAKER: I WANTED TO ‘DRIVE A STAKE IN THE HEART OF CARIBOU BARBIE’ Stephen Bannon, director of the forthcoming Sarah Palin documentary, “The Undefeated,” said he came away from the movie-making process with the sense that Palin was as smart and savvy as the best politicians. As he put it, Bannon wanted the film to “drive a stake in the heart of Caribou Barbie.” “You can’t understand the meaning of Sarah Palin unless you understand the stewardship of Governor Palin,” he told reporters who screened the film last week. The story line, which follows a mostly chronological path from Palin’s childhood to her rise to political prominence, is punctuated by a series of interviews with Palin supporters. The documentary begins with visual and audio clips of pundits (everyone from Joan Rivers to Howard Stern) and Palin-haters disparaging her, some of whom use language so crude that Bannon said the film is “X-rated.” The film’s re-telling of her accomplishments as mayor of Wasilla and governor of Alaska portrays her as a courageous and unconventional figure willing to take on the political establishment -- even in those early years. (Technically, it’s unrated but the producers plan to scrub it down to PG-13 for a wider release.) According to the film, Palin is both a hero of the Tea Party and the second coming of Ronald Reagan. A “coda” segment at the end juxtaposes images of Reagan and Palin, highlighting the similarities between the two. Bannon said two Palin confidantes, Tim Crawford and Rebecca Mansour, first approached him about making the movie shortly after the 2010 midterm election. They provided him with access to contacts and sources, but he emphasized that they had little contact as the film was being produced. It was “totally uncoordinated,” he said.

More on the new Palin documentary from Jonathan Karl’s “Good Morning America” report:

ON TODAY’S “TOP LINE”: STENY HOYER. Amy Walter and Jonathan Karl interview House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. Also on the program, a clip of Karl’s interview with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. (preview below). Watch “Top Line” LIVE at 12:00 p.m. Eastern.

ERIC CANTOR AFFIRMS OBAMA’S DEBT CEILING DEADLINE. “House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says he has no reason to doubt the Obama Administration's dire warnings that the federal debt limit must be raised by August 2nd to avoid negative economic consequences -- but insists that the limit will not be raised without trillions of dollars in "real spending reductions,” ABC’s Jonathan Karl reports. “Asked if August 2 is the absolute deadline to reach an agreement or whether the date is an arbitrary target set by the Treasury Department, Cantor did not challenge the deadline. ‘Secretary Geithner feels August 2 is his deadline,’ Cantor told ABC News in an exclusive interview for the Subway Series with Jonathan Karl. ‘I don't question the Secretary of the Treasury other than to say we're trying to get in place real spending reductions -- trillions of dollars of spending reductions -- if the president wants us to increase the credit limit of this country by trillions of dollars.’ The statement could put Cantor at odds with many House conservatives who have expressed suspicion and doubt over the administration's warning that the deadline to strike a deal to raise the debt ceiling is August 2.”


DNC MOBILIZES VOLUNTEER ARMY. "A legion of 1,600 newly-recruited Democratic campaign volunteers, armed with Tweet-producing smartphones and a contagious spirit of enthusiasm, are fanning out across 40 states today to begin laying the groundwork for the reelection of President Barack Obama," reports ABC's Devin Dwyer. "The forces -- college students, recent graduates, teachers, and retirees -- will work unpaid through August, aides say, to grow and re-energize Obama's grassroots volunteer network that had remarkable success in 2008, and gather troves of voter data in the process. Obama campaign managers hope the effort will give the president something of a head start over his yet-to-be-determined Republican rival, in what is expected to be a tough campaign. The operation kicked-off Saturday at boot-camp-style training sessions held jointly by the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee in conference rooms and community centers across the country. ABC News received exclusive access to one of the two-day sessions held at DNC headquarters, where 15 volunteers received a briefing on campaign strategies and ground operations for the summer ahead." More from Dwyer's report:

DEMS TO GOP: ‘DON’T END MEDICARE’ “Democrats sought to send House Republicans a warning at the outset of this week's congressional recess: political peril awaits in 2012 if they push ahead with proposed changes to Medicare,” The Hill’s Michael O’Brien reports. “The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) released a video on Monday and an associated website warning against the House GOP's 2012 budget, the Medicare reforms in which have become somewhat of a political albatross for Republicans. The video, "Don't End Medicare," features old news footage touting the creation of Medicare alongside testimonials by constituents calling out some of their Republican representatives by name for supporting the changes to Medicare as proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). The video singles out Reps. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), John Kline (R-Minn.) and Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) and other Republicans in Congress over the Medicare plan, which would transform the entitlement program into a voucher-based system for Americans under the age of 55.”

OBAMA REBRANDING FOR 2012. The Obama Brand in 2008 was pretty simple: Hope and change,” USA Today’s Susan Page notes. “Then things got complicated. The jobless rate on Friday ticked above 9% again. The housing market nationwide continues to fall. Gas prices are straining family's summertime budgets. President Obama's signature health care law to expand insurance coverage doesn't command majority support more than a year after it was signed into law. Washington negotiations on reducing the budget deficit are as polarized as ever. Now, preparing for next year's re-election campaign, Obama is moving to refurbish a political brand that has been defined for the worst by his Republican opponents, dented by the realities of governing and battered by a faltering economy. He is going on the road to Americans' workplaces to argue he's made tough decisions that will pay off over time. … Strategists in both parties agree Obama needs to recapture the energy that marked his last election, especially to build a grass-roots organization and engage the younger voters who played an important role for him in 2008. … However, the president's team acknowledges that Obama can't simply reprise his 2008 brand. As the incumbent, 'change' this time might mean replacing him in the White House. He can't ignore the record, both the accomplishments and the setbacks, of his first term.”

CONSERVATIVE WOMEN EYE BACHMANN, PALIN. “They don’t like identity politics and aren’t crazy about the word “feminist.” But a lot of conservative women here can’t help but rejoice that they may have a couple of tough-talking, tea-drinking mothers to choose from in the Republican primary,” reports the Washington Post’s Sandhya Somashekhar, “Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is on the verge of announcing her intentions, and former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is contemplating a bid. If either runs, it would be the first time since Elizabeth Dole’s bid in 1999 that a viable female candidate has sought the Republican nomination for president. The prospect has energized conservative women who four years ago were deeply uncomfortable with Hillary Rodham Clinton but who see in Bachmann and Palin the kind of family-focused, overtly spiritual candidate whose lifestyle and values seem to mirror their own. … The inclusion of Palin and Bachmann in the mix of candidates caps a blockbuster year in which women were credited with helping the GOP retake control of the House. Women occupy many of the leadership roles in the tea party movement, which reshaped the 2010 midterm elections. Nine GOP women joined the House last year, one joined the Senate, and three won governorships in November.

SENATE SHIFTS FOCUS BACK TO JOBS. “The Senate is expected to renew its focus on jobs Monday following a week at home that saw the country unsettled by troubling economic indicators which raised the specter of a double-dip recession,” writes Roll Call’s David Drucker. “Pushed by Friday's unemployment report showing the jobless rate again ticked upward, Senate Democrats are preparing to bring up a bill to reauthorize funding for the Economic Development Administration under the rationale that the agency helps spur job growth. Senate Republicans, too, will highlight their attention on economic growth, advocating for spending cuts, debt reduction and the elimination of government regulations as a means to calm the markets and spark economic growth. ‘We will continue to talk about jobs this week. We'll focus on the need to get our economy going again by addressing the fiscal crisis and doing something significant about our debt problem,’ a senior Republican Senate aide said Friday. ‘Creating jobs has been Democrats' top priority since day one,’ Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement commenting on the May job numbers. Statistics tracking home sales, manufacturing and consumer confidence as well as overall economic activity were down, failing — along with the job numbers — to meet analysts' projections of modest growth.”


@RealClearScott: My analysis of Palin's week & whether she'll run (she hasn't decided yet. Really!):

@ 2chambers : The week ahead on the Hill: 5th round of Biden talks, Panetta and Mueller visit Capitol Hill

@ GOP12 : Chris Christie tells Roger Ailes that "my wife would kill me" if he ran for president

@ HotlineReid : Wait, Kitty Dukakis was once married to Jason Chaffetz's dad?!? @HotlineJulie with a great profile at #HotlineSort

@ GovernorPerry : a pleasant early summer Texas morning. Nearly perfect for that workout or run....go do it!!


* Herman Cain will be in Iowa participating in The Family Leader Presidential Lecture Series. The trip will include speeches at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Pella Christian High School in Pella, and University of Iowa in Iowa City.

* Rick Santorum plans to officially launch his presidential campaign at an event in southwestern Pennsylvania.

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