Some of the Republican Party's most ambitious leaders are courting religious conservatives as evangelical officials claim new momentum in their fight for the GOP's soul.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition, led by former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, launches its annual conference Thursday with appearances by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Almost every other top-tier prospective presidential hopeful is on the agenda for the three-day gathering in Washington.
"This is the most conservative, the most pro-life and the most pro-family stable of candidates we've ever had," Reed told The Associated Press in an interview. "Not only do you not have someone running who's socially moderate to liberal that we can see so far, but you have a lot of people who are going to run who are actually champions on these issues."
The speaking program includes a pair of social conservative favorites, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist pastor. Both are former presidential candidates weighing 2016 campaigns. But religious conservatives like Reed note that most GOP White House hopefuls considered more mainstream oppose gay marriage and abortion rights, including funding for Planned Parenthood, among other social conservative priorities.
That group includes New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is scheduled to deliver his first major address to evangelical voters Friday, along with Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and a libertarian favorite, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who personally opposes gay marriage and abortion rights but suggests that the GOP focus less on divisive social issues as it tries to broaden its appeal after a disappointing 2012 election season.
Among the early 2016 favorites, only former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is not on the agenda, although he addressed the same group last year. He cited a scheduling conflict.
Organizers expect more than 1,000 evangelical leaders to attend the conference and hope to mobilize religious conservative voters ahead of the upcoming midterm elections and the 2016 presidential contest, which is expected to begin in earnest early next year. While polls suggest that social conservatives are losing their fight against gay marriage, Republican officials across the political spectrum concede that evangelical voters continue to play a critical role in Republican politics.
"You can ignore them, but you do so at our own peril," said Republican operative Hogan Gidley, who has worked for Santorum and Huckabee in the past.
In the 2012 general election, exit polls showed 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.
And evangelical voters are expected to make up a greater portion of this November's midterm elections, in which Democrats are fighting to protect their Senate majority.
"They're not going away. Their issues aren't going away," Reed said. "And they're going to matter in 2014 and 2016."
© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.