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Republican leaders court religious conservatives as fight for soul of GOP intensifies

The fight for the soul of the Republican Party intensifies this week as Republican leaders gather in Washington to court religious conservatives.

The Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group created by former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, is launching a conference Thursday designed to strengthen the evangelical influence in national politics while giving many religious conservative activists their first look at potential 2016 presidential candidates.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul are among those set to address the coalition on Thursday. Republican stars on the schedule Friday and Saturday include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus.

Reed told The Associated Press that religious conservatives have a simple message for GOP leaders: "Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the pro-life, pro-family and pro-marriage positions that candidates have taken and will take in the future are not a liability at the ballot box, they're an asset."

The Republican National Committee does not necessarily agree.

Just three months ago, Priebus endorsed an RNC report that linked the future success of the Republican Party to more tolerant attitudes on social issues such as gay marriage.

"When it comes to social issues, the party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming. 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," reads the report by GOP leaders following painful election losses last fall.

Reed dismissed the findings as an unnecessary jab at religious conservatives, but he said that his organization also believes in "the politics of addition."

"We think you've got to add more young people, more Hispanics, more women, more African-Americans — you've got to grow the movement and grow the party," Reed said. "But you don't do that by taking the most loyal constituents that you've got and throwing them under the bus."

While a minority of the American electorate, religious conservatives represent a passionate and vocal voting bloc in the Republican Party. They wield particular influence in the GOP's presidential primaries and caucuses.

In the 2012 general election, exit polls show that white evangelicals and born-again Christians made up 26 percent of the electorate and overwhelmingly backed Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama, 78 percent to 21 percent. But the group appears to be out of step with a slim majority of the broader electorate that supports same-sex marriage and legalized abortion.

The conference begins the same week that social issues were thrust back into the national conversation after a committee led by House Republicans voted Wednesday to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The bill is not likely to become law, but it enraged some women's groups.

"The relentless assault on women's rights and opportunities proved to be a losing strategy for Republicans in 2012," said Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY's List, a national group that helps elect female Democrats who support abortion rights. "They have not learned their lesson."

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