- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - Republican presidential contenders railed against abortion rights on Saturday as they courted religious conservatives, promising Christian values would guide their personal decisions and public policies should they win the presidency.

“My faith has guided me for my entire life, and I don’t suspect that’s going to change,” former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said after ticking off a list of abortion restrictions enacted while he led Texas. “No candidate’s done more to protect unborn life.”

Perry was among nearly a dozen presidential hopefuls in Washington this week for one of the nation’s premier gatherings of Christian activists.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called his Catholic faith “an organizing part of my architecture.” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said religion gives him more empathy toward the poor. And Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas cited his Christian values in lashing out at the Supreme Court.

The Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual conference began the day after nine African-Americans were shot to death inside a historic South Carolina church, offering a grim backdrop to the three-day meeting designed to give religious activists a closer look at the large class of GOP candidates and others considering bids.

Beyond decrying the shootings in South Carolina, presidential prospects offered religious conservatives an intimate look at the role of faith in their public lives.

Speaking on Friday, Bush noted that he converted to Catholicism after marrying his Mexican-born wife. The religion, he said, has been “an organizing part of my architecture, if you will, as a person and certainly as an elected official.”

He highlighted his work to institute new abortion restrictions during his administration, which included strict parental notification laws and a ban on “partial-birth” abortion. He also cited his fight for the life of Terry Schiavo, a Florida woman kept in a vegetative state for 15 years on life support. While her husband wanted her feeding tubes removed, Bush ordered the tubes reinserted only to be overruled by a federal court.

“I insisted that we build a culture of life,” Bush said of his eight years as Florida governor.

Asserting that “people of sincere faith make better leaders,” former technology executive Carly Fiorina criticized Democrats for being weak on social issues. “I do not think progressives share our belief in gifts and the dignity of each and every human life,” she said.

Kasich, who is expected to launch a presidential bid in the coming weeks, said his Catholic background pushed him to run for governor.

“I got a calling, folks,” he said Friday in a speech referring to Bible verses from memory more than once.

“What my faith does for me, I hope, is gives me strength, it allows me to have patience, it helps me to love my enemies, it helps me to care more about other people,” Kasich told reporters after leaving the stage.

The Republican Party’s evangelical wing wields great influence in the selection of the GOP’s presidential nominee, particularly in Iowa and many of the southern states scheduled to host primary contests early in the voting calendar - South Carolina prominent among them.

Exit polls taken during the 2014 midterm elections found that 4 in 10 Republican voters were white evangelical Christians, and nearly half attended religious services weekly. Among Democrats, a third attend services weekly, while 11 percent are white born-again Christians.

While this week’s conference drew almost the entire Republican presidential field, some contenders will do better with Christian conservatives than others.

Both Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Perry have hosted daylong prayer events in their states. Cruz had a strong religious upbringing. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is a devoted social conservative. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is also a Baptist minister.

Conference organizers were largely pleased with the Republicans’ focus on faith, although some said talk is cheap. A real test, they suggested, would come after the Supreme Court weighs in on gay marriage. The court may strike down state laws that ban the practice.

“We’ll see who’s offering political sound bites and who shows up when the going gets tough,” said Timothy Head, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

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Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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