Insert conservative Christian cliche here

Maybe you've heard: Conservative Christian voters are going to be a big deal in the 2012 U.S. presidential election. This isn't really news. It's be a reality for a few decades now, and it's been heavily covered since the rise of George W. Bush. But is the role of conservative Christian voters -- often mistakenly just called "evangelicals" -- such old news that daily newspaper readers can be assumed to know all the background without it being spelled out?

For instance, this story from the Los Angeles Times gives an OK survey of how most of the Republican presidential candidates played at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington. But it never gets below the surface of how conservative Christians feel about these candidates and it doesn't even explain why these candidates care.

Reporter Paul West's lede is painfully weak:

Competition for the hearts and votes of Christian conservatives is as wide open as the broader 2012 Republican contest, if a two-day gathering of political activists is any indication.

And you're five or six paragraphs into the story before you realize that there's no nut graph here. Not unless you consider this meaningless quote from Ralph Reed to be a nut graph:

Social conservatives aren't "any different from other primary voters. A huge number of them are just totally undecided," said Ralph Reed, a longtime religious-right strategist who founded the sponsoring group, designed to bring evangelicals and "tea party" voters under the same tent.

Huh. See how "conservative Christians" became "social conservatives," which became "evangelicals" -- all without explanation. To be sure, there is a lot of overlap. But those are three distinct groups.

You might also be wondering what's with the quotation marks around "tea party." Bizarre. But, actually, you'll find lots of one-off quoted words in this story. What I can't tell is if they're scare quotes or just a reporter being overly cautious. That reporter is Tribune Co's national political correspondent for all its papers, so I wouldn't really suspect the latter. And, to be honest, I can't say I'm not scared by lots of aspects of the tea party movement. But back to the journalism ...

A bright note in Paul West's story is his depiction of how these candidates played to what we have to assume are the political interests of those political activists who attended this conference. (Folks like this guy.) Take for instance this section, starting with U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann:

Bachmann, expected to announce her presidential intentions this month in Iowa, repeatedly brought the crowd out of its chairs with a blend of red-meat rhetoric and autobiographical detail. She attacked Planned Parenthood as a "corrupt organization," swore a tireless commitment to repeal of "Obamacare," deplored what she claimed was Obama's "shocking" betrayal of Israel, and finished up, eyes closed, with a two-minute prayer.

Also addressing the audience were former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who described the federal debt as a "moral tragedy," and former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who touted his record as an abortion foe and tax cutter while governor of Utah. Both are Mormons, which, according to a recent Pew Center opinion survey, puts them at a disadvantage in seeking support from white evangelical Protestants.

Huntsman, a day after leaving the event, said he planned to skip Iowa's caucuses, where evangelical Christians cast as much as 60% of the vote. Romney has not committed to competing aggressively there either. That apparent skittishness led a prominent social conservative to question the sincerity of their appeals for evangelical support.

Interesting details. This is also as close as the story gets to explaining why anyone in this race cares about conservative Christians/social conservatives/evangelicals. But there is much more that could have been said. And, despite all we already know, I think that in this case it should have been.

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