WASHINGTON (AP) — Describing a nation "in a full-blown spiritual crisis," leading Republicans on Friday vowed to fight against abortion rights and protect the role of faith in public life as they courted religious conservatives with an eye on the 2016 presidential contest.
"I will stand up for unborn children as long as I'm privileged to be in office," Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul declared while addressing the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group led by longtime Christian activist Ralph Reed hosting its annual conference in Washington.
"America is in a full-blown spiritual crisis," the tea party favorite continued. "What America needs is a revival."
Paul led a parade of ambitious Republicans on a Friday speaking program — including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum — that featured aggressive defenses of social conservative priorities, including opposition to abortion, gay marriage and funding for Planned Parenthood. The gathering highlights the delicate balancing act Republican leaders face as they work to bridge divisions within the party and improve the GOP's image.
Organizers said more than 1,000 evangelical Christian leaders were attending the conference, designed to mobilize religious conservative voters in advance 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 your own peril," said Republican operative Hogan Gidley, who worked for Santorum and for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee during his 2008 campaign for the presidential nomination.
In the last presidential election, exit polls showed that white evangelical or born-again Christians made up 26 percent of voters. The group has far more power in lower-turnout Republican primary elections.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, canceled his plans to speak on Friday, citing a legislative hearing on Capitol Hill that took longer than expected. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declined an invitation to appear at the conference, citing a scheduling conflict.
But the three-day event is featuring most of the well-known Republicans considering a 2016 presidential run.
In his first major address to evangelical voters, Christie highlighted his status as New Jersey's first anti-abortion governor since the Supreme Court's landmark abortion decision, Roe v. Wade.
"Every life is a gift from God that's precious and must be protected," Christie declared, while calling on conservatives to devote more attention to helping treat drug addiction.
"I believe if you're pro-life, as I am, you need to be pro-life for the whole life," he said shortly before making a visit to early-voting New Hampshire. "You can't just afford to be pro-life when the human being is in the womb."
Santorum, a social conservative favorite, drew attention to the shift in both parties toward supporting gay marriage. The former Pennsylvania senator accused Republicans of not fighting hard enough to protect "the most basic institution that holds the family together — that's the institution of marriage."
"Children need mothers and fathers," Santorum said.
For Paul, the focus on social issues deviated from his traditional message of personal freedom and government overreach. He has encouraged GOP leaders in recent months to focus less on such issues as abortion and gay marriage to help grow the party after back-to-back losses in presidential elections.
But on Friday, the libertarian favorite said voters should reject any politician who says faith isn't a part of public life.
"We've arrived at that day of reckoning," he said. "Freedom requires faith to sustain it."