Nearly all of the 2012 Republican candidates are firing up the party base this afternoon at a Faith and Freedom Coalition rally to kick off the Florida GOP Convention in Orlando.
The rally brings together the most die-hard conservative factions of the GOP in what amounts to a warm-up round before tonight’s Fox News presidential debate. The Faith and Freedom Coalition, one of the most powerful conservative voices in the Republican party, works to energize both Tea Partiers and Evangelical social conservatives, combining Christian “family values” with the a message of limited government and fiscal conservatism.
In some ways, the Faith and Freedom rally may actually be more important than the debate. Formed in 2009, the Coalition is basically the Republican response to Obama’s 2008 grassroots campaign — a sort of nextGen version of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition.
In its short existence, Faith and Freedom has spawned a loose network of state, local, and online chapters, all of which are trained in voter registration, get-out-the-vote tactics, and social networking to build volunteer support. Coalition founder Ralph Reed describes it as “block and tackle” strategy for churches and voter precincts.
The GOP candidates who can win over the Florida contingency of this network today will secure built-in campaign organisations that will be invaluable through the primaries and in a general election. The Coalition is so influential that even decidedly non-evangelical, non-Tea Party candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman can’t ignore today’s rally.
Michele Bachmann, who is fighting to hold on to social conservative votes, has been particularly vocal about her appearance today. The Coalition was instrumental in vaulting the Minnesota Congresswoman into the national spotlight during the 2009 debate over healthcare reform.
But Bachmann is struggling to hold on to this support, as social conservatives migrate to frontrunner Rick Perry.
Perry, the only candidate to announce a leadership team for Florida’s GOP convention, is already building up a campaign organisation in Florida. His convention chairs are all powerful conservative activists in the state, including:
- Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, one of the most visible members in Florida state politics and an influential voice in the state’s Republican Establishment. powerful evangelical activists.
- John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, the organisation behind Florida’s 2008 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Bachmann spoke at the organisation’s policy awards dinner last month, so Stemberger’s support for Perry has got to be a blow.
- Pam Olsen, president and founder of the Florida Prayer Network and founder of the Tallahassee International House of Prayer. The Miami Herald describes Olsen as “one of the most plugged-in evangelicals you’ve never heard of.” Her prayer network is part of a nationwide web that is the growth engine for the New Apostolic Reformation, a rapidly expanding Christian fundamentalist movement. Leaders of the movement were behind the stadium prayer rally Perry hosted in early August.
- Bill Bunting, the Second Amendment Chairman of the Florida Republican Party.
- Lew Oliver, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party. Orlando, where this week’s convention is taking place, falls within Oliver’s jurisdiction, so he will be one of the most highly-visible and influential state party leaders at the event.
- A.K. Desai, CEO of Universal Health Care Group and huge Republican fundraiser in Florida.
It’s a powerful team that hits all of the high notes among the GOP’s core constituents. The support network leaves little room for the rest of the field to build up support and provides an important hedge for Perry in the event that he flails in tonight’s debate.
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