WASHINGTON – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is joining the parade of ambitious Republicans courting religious conservatives as the early jockeying for the next presidential contest intensifies.
Christie was to deliver his first major address to an evangelical conference on Friday, the second day of the Faith and Freedom Coalition's annual meeting, which brings hundreds of social conservative leaders to Washington. He'll be joined on a packed agenda that also includes the GOP's 2012 vice presidential nominee, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, and tea party firebrand Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Each is weighing a 2016 presidential run. The appearance comes at a critical time for Christie, who is broadening his political outreach as he works to recover from a political retribution scandal in his home state.
This group of potential presidential contenders largely represents a wing of the Republican Party eager to downplay the GOP's positions on divisive social issues, although each of the three opposes gay marriage and abortion rights, including funding for Planned Parenthood, among other social conservative priorities.
The day before, GOP Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas 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 addressed the conference led by long-time Christian activist Ralph Reed.
"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," Rubio said.
He 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 were 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 your 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.
There was little talk of abortion or gay marriage on the main stage Thursday. Rubio and Cruz largely sidestepped direct mention of lightning-rod issues in favor of less controversial themes.