Three Republican presidential candidates jockeyed for the support of social conservatives and jabbed at their 2016 rivals on Thursday at a conference of influential evangelical activists.
GOP senators and 2016 candidates Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz addressed the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, D.C., and each appealed to the crowd by stressing the importance of social values and limiting government overreach. But Cruz, who has long courted evangelical voters, most excited the crowd.
“All of us are aware in a couple of weeks the Supreme Court is going to issue a decision concerning marriage, and I would encourage everyone here to be lifting up in prayer the Court, that they not engage in an act of naked and lawless judicial activism, tearing down the marriage laws adopted pursuant to the Constitution,” Cruz said of the forthcoming ruling that could legalize gay marriage nationwide.
The conference is the latest in a series of GOP candidate confabs that have taken place in 2015. A number have already taken place in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Faith and Freedom Coalition even held a similar event in Iowa in April attended by a number of current and potential candidates. Nationally, the group boasts 1,000,000 members in all 50 states. They have played an influential role in deciding who to evangelical voters might coalesce around. The bloc of voters will play a key role in helping select the winner in states like Iowa and South Carolina.
“I think we need to engage conservatives and say, ‘We’re going to be as conservative as we promised, we’re going to be as conservative as we promised, we’re going to be boldly for what we’re for.’ But then we have to figure out what parts of our message might apply to people who haven’t been listening to it,” Paul said.
Nine GOP presidential candidates and four likely candidates will address the group before the conference wraps on Saturday, each hoping to in some way differentiate themselves from the crowded field.
“I didn’t start my career with the advantage of family connections, and I don’t have a foundation that raises $2 billion, some of it from foreign entities,” Rubio said in a swipe at both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.
“But despite all that we’ve been able to invest in our children, not just by saving for them to go to college one day, but by being able to send them to receive a Christian education. We were able to buy a luxury speedboat cleverly disguised as a family fishing boat,” he added, a shot at a recent New York Times report that mischaracterized the elegance of Rubio’s boat.
Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, who have been battling reputations as moderates, will address the conservative crowd. Mike Huckabee, whose support from Christian voters helped lift him to victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, will not speak, though he addressed the group in the Hawkeye State in April. Aides say the former Arkansas governor had a scheduling conflict.
Both Paul and Cruz began their speeches by addressing the church shooting that killed nine people in South Carolina Wednesday night.
“Today the body of Christ is in mourning. I want to begin by just reflecting on the horrific tragedy of last night at the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church,” Cruz said. “That a sick and deranged person came and prayed with a historically black congregation for an hour and then murdered 9 innocent souls.”