DES MOINES, Iowa – For conservative Christian voters, the 2016 presidential race has almost too many options to take in.
That array of choices — a "wonderful dilemma" in the estimation of Iowa voter Bill Campbell — was on display Saturday night as Republican hopefuls wooed evangelicals with remarks that emphasized religious freedom and opposition to gay marriage.
Nine declared and prospective 2016 candidates appeared in a church for a forum sponsored by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, drawing together more than 1,000 people in a state where social conservatives hold significant sway in the state's leadoff presidential caucuses.
The forum gave candidates an opportunity to show off their conservative bona fides, with speeches on religious freedom and social issues that repeatedly brought the crowd to its feet.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz noted that the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in four states' same-sex marriage cases on Tuesday and said that between now and then, conservatives must "fall to our knees and pray."
"We need leaders who will stand unapologetically in defense of marriage and life," Cruz said in remarks that drew huge applause.
On abortion, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul encouraged conservatives to be more aggressive in their opposition, saying: "I'm tired of us retreating on this issue and I'm going to push back." He also argued that most Americans were uncomfortable with late-term procedures.
Abortion has been a tricky issue for the senator. He has supported restrictions on the procedure in legislation yet said the issue is too divisive to expect changes in federal abortion law, a stance that raised earlier concerns among some religious conservatives about his commitment to their cause.
The gathering offered a platform for Republican contenders to cater to social conservatives with a message that did not always address the full range of their views on social issues. Both Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Paul, for example, have stopped short of calling for a federal ban on same-sex marriage sought by some religious conservatives. The senators have said that question should be left to the states.
Many candidates spoke about their personal faith beliefs. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal spoke about his conversion to Christianity and said he would seek to protect religious freedom.
"The United States of America did not create religious liberty," Jindal said. "Religious liberty created the United States of America."
Also on the program were former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and businesswoman Carly Fiorina. Most candidates focused on religious and social issues, but several took shots at Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Fiorina, the only woman among the 2016 Republican contenders, said Republicans need to choose someone who can throw "punches all day long" at the potential Democratic presidential nominee.
Gary Chidester, 65, of Lakesburg, said he had talked to most candidates even before the event, but remained undecided. He was most interested in hearing support for traditional marriage and opposition to abortion rights, adding: "As a Christian, when I'm holding my Bible and the words change in it, I'll change."