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GOP presidential hopefuls preview debate attacks at conservatives' rally

Before the Republican presidential debate in Orlando Thursday, seven GOP candidates addressed the Florida Faith & Freedom Coalition.

By NBC's Carrie Dann, Andrew Rafferty, James Novogrod and Garrett Haake. Video edited by NBC's Matt Loffman.

Hours before the fourth presidential debate, a parade of GOP hopefuls made their pitches to conservative and religious activists Thursday afternoon at a forum across the street from the fight night venue.

Candidates addressed a crowd of about 3,000 at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Rally, an event billed as a kickoff to the Florida Presidency 5 gathering that will dominate the political news cycle this weekend.

Seven of the nine candidates who will share the stage at tonight's debate spoke at the rally, each underscoring their conservative credentials while hinting at the attacks they are likely to make during the debate itself.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, the first candidate to speak, delivered remarks laced with historical references — and a barb aimed, it seemed, at a fellow candidate.

“We are that Gideon’s army that’s coming together to stand for the values that we know are the backbone of America. For life, for liberty, for the American family. For religious freedom,” Bachmann said, referencing a military hero of the Old Testament.

She continued: “Some people have said that this election has to be anybody but Obama,” adding, “of any election, this is the one when conservatives don’t have to settle.”

Bachmann didn’t mention anyone’s name, leaving the audience to decipher which candidate she had in mind. During last week’s CNN / Tea Party Express debate, Bachmann attacked Rick Perry’s HPV vaccine mandate he authorized as governor of Texas. But social conservatives have also been critical of Mitt Romney — whose speech followed Bachmann's.

Gov. Mitt Romney stuck largely to his business and economy focused message, not singling out any of his rivals by name.

"I spent my life in the private sector. I'm a business guy. I'm a conservative business guy." Romney told the crowd, before repeating his standard anti-Obama line that to create jobs it "helps to have had a job."

Unlike most of the other candidates, Romney never discussed his own faith directly. When he strayed from his economic message, it was to talk about patriotism and values more generically. He said the country needed leaders who could "draw on the patriotism of the American people" and said his own travels around the United States had made him optimistic, not cynical about America's future.

Romney also repeated a characterization of President Obama that he debuted at the VFW convention in San Antonio last month: that the president's policies were guided by "all those years, perhaps, in the Harvard faculty lounge" and by looking to Europe. Some observers see this as an odd distinction for Romney to attempt to draw with the president, since the former Massachusetts governor himself earned a J.D./M.B.A at Harvard, and several of his advisers hold degrees from the Cambridge, Mass. institution, or have taught there. Three of Romney's five sons also have advanced degrees from Harvard.

The last speaker, Gov. Rick Perry, made a direct pitch for support in the P5 straw poll to be held on Saturday. Perry also delivered an in-person critique of the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" education reform program, which his team slammed in an email to reporters earlier Thursday. The Texas governor's aides charge that Romney has flip-flopped on his views of the White House's educations reforms.

Receiving one of the most enthusiastic receptions from Faith and Freedom attendees was former Godfathers Pizza CEO Herman Cain, who noted that he has never held elected office.

Also speaking at the event were former Pennsylvania Sen. RIck Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was included on a preliminary schedule, but a spokesman said that he was never slated to attend.