Washington (CNN) - Ralph Reed can still draw a crowd.
Nine potential Republican presidential candidates will be speaking at the fifth annual Road to the Majority conference, which is organized by Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition. The event, which kicks off Thursday at a hotel in the nation's capital, is one of the largest annual gatherings of social conservative voters, who are a key part of the Republican Party's base.
[twitter-follow screen_name='politicalticker'][twitter-follow screen_name='psteinhausercnn']
Of the nine possible GOP 2016 contenders making an appearance, one may be in the glare of the spotlight more than the others. And that's Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a pragmatic conservative who's anything but a crowd favorite among some on the right. In the most recent CNN/ORC International poll of Republicans' choice for the next nomination, Christie was at 10% among self-described moderates, but just 6% among those who labeled themselves conservative.
This is Christie's first address to a major gathering of social conservatives. Earlier this year he was well received at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the granddaddy of conservative gatherings. He wasn't invited to the 2013 edition of CPAC, in part because of his praise of President Barack Obama's response to Superstorm Sandy, which had caused massive damage in the Garden State.
Reed said it's important for Christie to speak at the Faith and Freedom event.
"If he's serious about seeking the Republican presidential nomination, this is a constituency that he can not ignore," Reed told CNN.
Reed pointed out that Christie does line up with social conservatives on many key issues.
"He's the first pro-life governor of New Jersey since Roe v. Wade. He's line-item vetoed state funding for Planned Parenthood every year he's been governor. He vetoed a same-sex marriage bill that the Democratic legislature sent him. And he's a faithful Catholic. We don't agree with him on every issue, but we wanted to give him an opportunity to share his story and make his case."
As for what kind of reception Christie will receive, Reed said, "we'll wait to see what he says on Friday, I don't want to prejudge his remarks. I'll wait for him to speak for himself."
But he added that "I think people may be surprised at the reception he gets."
Christie's appearance at the conference may be a signal that he's getting more serious about a 2016 run.
A GOP consultant with ties to the Christie camp said the governor's address is significant because it's a signal that "he's not ceding any ground with this constituency, so if he decides to do something in 2016, he going to compete with all the wings of the Republican Party, and that includes the conservative flank."
"It sends a signal that he's not going to back away from folks who do not necessarily agree with him on all the issues. One of the hallmarks of his political brand is the he's not afraid to engage with people who may not agree with him all the time."
Christie, along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, is one of the two keynote speakers at the Road to Majority conference. The consultant, who asked for anonymity to speak more freely, added that's significant because it shows Christie can land an important speaking slot "even with a constituency that, at least on paper, doesn't line up with his views. That speaks to his political power, but also the interest in what he has to say."
Rand Paul's 'rare dual appeal'
Also speaking at this year's conference are Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee. Two former Republican presidential candidates who may run again–former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania–are also addressing the crowd. And former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, another possible contender, is speaking.
This is Paul's fourth appearance at the Road to Majority conference. A favorite among libertarians and many in the tea party movement, Paul has made a concerted effort the past couple of years to reach out to younger voters and minority voters, who are not a natural fit with the GOP.
Reed, who calls Paul "pro-life, pro-marriage, and pro-family," predicted that the senator's "going to do well among these voters."
"He's an interesting and intriguing figure within the party, in that he seems to have a rare dual appeal both among evangelicals, but also among libertarians and young people and others who haven't always felt welcome in our ranks," Reed continued. "We think that his arrival onto the national stage has been very good for conservatism."
Among the other possible White House contenders addressing the gathering, Huckabee, Santorum, Cruz and Jindal are also very well regarded among social conservatives. And that could further fracture the social conservative vote in the next race for the GOP nomination.
"This constituency has never been monolithic and they've never gotten in the evangelical version of a smoke filled room and anointed one candidate," Reed said. "Anytime you are dealing with a constituency that is so big, so diverse, so vibrant that it represents half of the Republican primary electorate, the constituency isn't going to go to one candidate lock, stock, and barrel."
Democrats slam conference
In the hours before the gathering got underway, national Democrats termed the event an "extreme" conference and used it to slam what they call the Republican Party's lack of diversity.
"The GOP will kick off the latest GOP cattle call at the circus known as the Faith and Freedom coalition meeting," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, told reporters.
"This meeting will be just the latest example of a Republican Party shamelessly pandering to the most extreme far-right elements in their party. We'll see a parade of 2016 GOP presidential candidates tripping over themselves trying to be most aligned with their extreme base."