J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
In this Jan. 8, 2014 file photo, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.
WASHINGTON — Leading Republicans on Thursday insisted that America's leaders must do more to defend Christian values at home and abroad, blaming President Barack Obama for attacks on religious freedom as they courted social conservatives expected to play a critical role in the next presidential contest.
"Those of us inspired by Judeo-Christian values...have an obligation to our country and to our fellow man to use our positions of influence to highlight those values," Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio said at a conference hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group led by long-time Christian political activist Ralph Reed.
Rubio, the first of several prospective Republican presidential candidates scheduled to speak, charged that Obama's policies "completely ignore the importance of families and values on our society, thinking that instead those things can be replaced by laws and government programs."
Organizers said more than 1,000 evangelical leaders are attending the conference, designed to mobilize religious conservative voters ahead of the upcoming midterm elections and the 2016 presidential contest. While polls suggest that social conservatives are losing their fight against gay marriage, Republican officials across the political spectrum concede that evangelical Christian voters continue to play a critical role in Republican politics.
"You can ignore them, but you do so at our own peril," said Republican operative Hogan Gidley, who has worked for former presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.
In the 2012 general election, exit polls showed that white evangelical and born-again Christians made up 26 percent of the electorate. The group has far more power in lower turnout Republican primary elections.
This week's conference highlights the balancing act leading Republicans face as they work to bridge internal divisions and improve the Republican Party's image. While religious conservatives continue to wield influence in the GOP, just last year the Republican National Committee released an exhaustive report calling on Republicans to adopt an "inclusive and welcoming" tone on divisive social issues.
"The Republican Party has given up on even trying to change. They're not even pretending anymore," Democratic National Committee chairman Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said in a conference call shortly before the conference began. "They've given up on any attempt to rebrand or reach out to new voters — and in many cases they've moved in the opposite direction."
"It's clear that the GOP has redefined the far right," she continued.
There was little talk of abortion or gay marriage on the main stage in the conservative conference on Thursday, however. Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz largely sidestepped direct mention of lightning-rod issues in favor of less-controversial themes.
Cruz highlighted what he called failures in the Obama administration that allowed attacks on Christians abroad, particularly in the escalating violence across Iraq.
"Christians are being persecuted in stunning numbers. They are being stoned. They are being tortured," Cruz said, calling for Obama to stand up for Christians in prison in Iran and Sudan. "We need leadership in America."
The speaking program that will continue Friday and Saturday with several more potential presidential contenders, including staunch social conservatives Santorum and Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor. But even those GOP White House hopefuls considered more mainstream oppose gay marriage and abortion rights, including funding for Planned Parenthood, among other social conservative priorities.
That group includes New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is scheduled to deliver his first major address to evangelical voters Friday, along with Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Also on the program is a libertarian favorite, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who personally opposes gay marriage and abortion rights but suggests that the GOP should downplay its focus on social issues.
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Among the early 2016 favorites, only former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is not on the agenda, although he addressed the same group last year. He cited a scheduling conflict.
"This is the most conservative, the most pro-life and the most pro-family stable of candidates we've ever had," Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, told The Associated Press in an interview. "Not only do you not have someone running who's socially moderate to liberal that we can see so far, but you have a lot of people who are going to run who are actually champions on these issues."