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'Faith And Freedom' In Wis. Primary Push


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Wisconsin holds its presidential primary on Tuesday. Like the rest of the upper Midwest, where manufacturing has taken a hit over the past decade, the economy is the top issue in the state. Among the many events the GOP hopefuls are attending this weekend was one sponsored by the Faith and Freedom Coalition. It's a national organization that wants to make sure Christian conservative and evangelical voters turn out in large numbers this year. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: For Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed, the reason President Obama won election four years ago is that Christian conservatives simply didn't turn out. He told his audience outside Milwaukee yesterday that this year they need to work much harder.

RALPH REED: And pray more fervently than you've ever prayed. We have to make sure that what happened in 2008 when 17 million of our brothers and sisters in Christ didn't even bother to vote, we have to ensure that that never happens again.

GONYEA: To that end, Faith and Freedom Coalition chapters in Iowa, South Carolina and elsewhere have been bringing candidates in to talk in advance of primaries all year. At those previous events, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich often stole the show. He was up first yesterday in Wisconsin, but this time, amid signs that his campaign is all but over, he was greeted more like an old friend. The former college history professor delved into the role of faith in the founding of the U.S.

NEWT GINGRICH: We are the only society in history that says we have been endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. And that means we're the only society in history that says power comes from God to each one of you personally and then you loan power to the government. This is the...


GONYEA: Next, came the front-runner, Mitt Romney. He was introduced by Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, a home-state favorite who actually received the day's biggest ovation. Ryan has endorsed Romney, who then went through his standard criticism of the Obama administration. Getting special attention was the recent conflict between the White House and Catholic-owned hospitals, universities and other institutions over contraception coverage for employees.

MITT ROMNEY: If I'm president of the United States, this great choice we have will make sure that in my case I will restore and protect religious freedom. We are one nation under God and that must be maintained.

GONYEA: Romney's chief rival is Rick Santorum, who has staked much of his campaign on winning big among Christian and evangelical voters. He's trailing Romney in Wisconsin and is way behind in the delegate race. Santorum was the final candidate to take the stage.

RICK SANTORUM: You know, one of the campaigns for president a week or so ago suggested that it would take an act of God for Rick Santorum to win the GOP nomination for president. Well, I don't know about you but I believe in act of God, so that's sort of where we're coming from.

GONYEA: The fact that Romney seems on a steady path to the nomination made this event far less electric than Faith and Freedom events in prior states. And while many self-described Christian conservatives at those earlier events often voiced an anybody-but-Romney sentiment, there was no sign of that yesterday. In the audience was 65-year-old Dan Mancini of Wauwatosa who echoed what many party leaders are saying - that it's time to end the Republican versus Republican warfare and support Romney.

DAN MANCINI: It's time we all get behind one candidate and move forward to defeat Barack Obama. It's that simple.

GONYEA: But for retired small businessman David Horning of Pewaukee, such talk is still premature.

DAVID HORNING: Oh, absolutely not, it's way too early for that.


HORNING: Well, there's plenty of time and it's a long election. It's a long election process.

GONYEA: And after three months of primaries and caucuses and many months of campaigning before that, he's not yet ready for it to be over. But Horning does know one thing for sure: he will vote for any Republican against President Obama in November. He says turnout won't be an issue this year. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.