WASHINGTON — Fighting to improve their brand, leading Republicans rallied behind religious liberty at a Friday gathering of evangelical conservatives, rebuking an unpopular President Barack Obama while skirting divisive social issues.
Speakers did not ignore abortion and gay marriage altogether on the opening day of the annual Values Voter Summit, but a slate of prospective presidential candidates focused on the persecution of Christians and their values at home and abroad — a message GOP officials hope will help unify a divided party and appeal to new voters ahead of November's midterm elections and the 2016 presidential contest.
"Oh, the vacuum of American leadership we see in the world," Texas Sen. Cruz declared Friday in a Washington hotel ballroom packed with religious conservatives. "We need a president who will speak out for people of faith, prisoners of conscience."
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul echoed the theme in a speech describing America as a nation in "spiritual crisis."
"Not a penny should go to any nation that persecutes or kills Christians," said Paul, who like Cruz is openly considering a 2016 presidential bid.
The speaking program included such potential 2016 candidates as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Several possible Republican candidates — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush among them — did not attend. The group has positions on social issues across the spectrum — from the libertarian-leaning Paul, who favors less emphasis on abortion and gay marriage, to Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor whose conservative social values define his brand.
The event host, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, said "a fundamental shift" is underway toward religious freedom among Republicans of all stripes.
"Without religious freedom, we lose the ability to even address those other issues," Perkins said of social issues.
Despite any rhetorical shift, he warned that evangelical voters will not forget priorities such as abortion and traditional marriage on Election Day: "It is not time to rethink our principles or shrink back from the conflict."
The intraparty debate over social issues has broad implications for the GOP's struggle to improve its image following a disappointing 2012 election season. The party platform formally opposes same-sex marriage and abortion rights, but the Republican National Committee released an internal audit last year calling for candidates to be more "inclusive and welcoming" on social issues.
"If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues," the report reads.
The rise of the Islamic State group and intensifying violence across the world has helped re-focus some cultural conservatives. The weekend summit features a dinner reception Saturday to honor Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman initially sentenced to death for refusing to denounce her Christian faith. After the court reversed its ruling, Ibrahim moved to New Hampshire this summer and figures to be a powerful symbol for Republicans campaigning in the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
Jindal, who is also weighing a White House bid, seized on what he called Obama's "silent war" on religious freedom.
"The United States of America did not create religious liberty," Jindal said. "Religious liberty created the United States of America."
Chip Saltsman, who served as Huckabee's presidential campaign manager in 2008, said concerns over religious persecution are centered on the same principles that have guided evangelical conservatives for years.
"When you look at what's going on in the world today, you talk about freedom issues and life issues; they're all the same," Saltsman said. "To be corny, those are all life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness issues."
Abortion and gay marriage were not forgotten on Friday, however.
"Let this generation be the one to stop abortion in America," Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman declared, calling on evangelicals to be "happy warriors" in the debate.
Cruz, an evangelical favorite who overwhelmingly won last year's Values Voter presidential straw poll, drew applause for chastising those in the GOP who encourage Republican candidates to downplay "family values."
"How do we win? We defend the values that are American values," Cruz said. "We stand for life. We stand for marriage. We stand for Israel."
Even Paul weighed in on abortion: "Don't tell me that 5- and 6-pound babies have no rights simply because they're not yet born," the Kentucky senator said and later added, "What America needs is a revival."
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