WASHINGTON (AP) — A fresh debate has erupted within the GOP over social issues.
Republicans in Congress and statehouses across the nation are pressing for restrictive abortion measures just three months after party leaders warned against emphasizing divisive cultural topics. Prominent religious conservatives also are pushing the party to embrace limits on abortion and gay rights as evangelical activists gather in Washington.
Several potential Republican presidential candidates appear to be listening.
"This call for us to silence ourselves and to stop speaking about the values that we know work, is a big mistake," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told the Faith and Freedom Coalition's gathering. Rubio insisted that "every human life has value... whether they are born or not."
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul told the group that there is a "war on Christianity, not just from liberal elites here at home, but worldwide." He argued that American should not send foreign aid to countries across the Middle East that persecute Christians.
The comments to the group founded by former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed fed a deep division in a Republican Party still trying to recover from painful election losses last fall.
While failing to defeat President Barack Obama, the GOP lost a handful of winnable Senate seats after some candidates made inflammatory statements about women and cultural issues. And in an exhaustive post-election autopsy, the Republican National Committee determined in a March report that the future success of the Republican Party — particularly with women voters — depends on more tolerant attitudes on contentious social matters.
"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.
One of the report's authors, Henry Barbour, said Thursday that people "don't need to agree on everything to be a good Republican" and that party growth depends on "multiplication, not division."
Reed, meanwhile, dismissed the RNC's 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."
He said 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."
Reed's gathering of religious conservatives came amid a Republican push to adopt stricter abortion laws in Washington and in state capitols across the country, though neither Rubio nor Paul directly addressed those developments.
A committee led by House Republicans voted Wednesday to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
In response to a Democratic amendment making an exception to the abortion ban in cases of rape and incest, bill sponsor Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said stated that incidences of rape resulting in pregnancy "are very low" — a comment that was roundly criticized.
Barbour described Franks' remark as "an incredibly dumb thing to say."
Franks later said that what he intended to say was the later-term abortions, such as those banned under his bill, were rarely the result of rapes.
The full House is expected to act on the bill next week, which was inspired by similar pushes by Republican state lawmakers across the country.
A federal court in May overturned a 20-week abortion ban in Arizona, saying that the law violated a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is viable. Viability is generally considered to start at 24 weeks. Some nine other states led by Republican legislatures have enacted similar bans and have faced court challenges.
GOP governors in Wisconsin and Texas thought to be weighing presidential bids are also backing tougher abortion limits this week.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he would sign a new law requiring women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound before the procedure. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry this week introduced new abortion-related laws that could ban abortions after 20 weeks, among other things.
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 GOP's sudden focus on social issues angered Democrats.
"After their 2012 losses, Republicans promised in numerous reports to modify their strategy, tone down their rhetoric and reach out to voters like women that they lost in 2012," said the Democratic National Committee's women's outreach director, Simone Ward. "But when it comes to women's health, the Grand Old Party is the just the same old extreme party it's always been."
The Faith and Freedom conference continues Friday and Saturday with appearances by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
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