By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Christian conservatives looking to put a Republican in the White House heard a lot about the economy on Friday in a sign that their social issues may take a back seat in 2012.
Many political speakers at the Faith and Freedom Coalition, including Republican White House hopefuls, 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 and potential candidate Jon Huntsman.
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 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.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobby group, argued that there is no need for truce, saying economic and family issues are one and the same.
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 that there will 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.
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.
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.
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)