- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2015

This year’s GOP presidential field is like manna from heaven for evangelical conservatives who, after a sparse 2012 contest, say they have plenty of viable options to pick from this time around.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the religious conservatives’ champion in 2008, and former Sen. Rick Santorum, their 2012 pick, are both running again — but so are a slew of newcomers who also make a pitch to defend religious liberty and move the country in a more God-fearing direction.

“I think evangelicals and others have a lot more reason to be optimistic,” said Tamara Scott, a Republican Nation Committee member from Iowa. “In the past maybe we have had a token Christian candidate. We have had several pay lip service to our founders and our Christian heritage. Now we have several people who not only talk about it, they know it, and they plan to act on it.”

Voters are getting a chance to see many of those options at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference that kicked off Thursday in Washington, where Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas vowed to stand with religious conservatives at home and abroad.

Mr. Cruz said the recent pushback against religious liberty laws in Indiana and Arkansas was “heartbreaking” and chastised some of his fellow Republicans for running for the hills.

“More than a few Republicans — sadly, even more than a few Republicans running for president in 2016 — chose that moment somehow to go rearrange their sock drawer,” Mr. Cruz said. “I’ll tell you this: I will never, ever, ever shy from standing up and defending the religious liberty of every American.”

Mr. Paul said the United States should not give money to countries that persecute Christians, and Mr. Rubio vowed to stand with Israel.

“If I am president, this country will do whatever it takes to help the people of Israel survive and prosper as a Jewish state,” Mr. Rubio said.

The three-day gathering also will serve as a showcase for Mr. Santorum, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who recently sponsored a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, spoke Wednesday at a private dinner tied to the conference. Mr. Huckabee will appear in a video due to a scheduling conflict, organizers said.

The gathering features panels such as “School Choice: Protecting Educational Freedom,” “Standing With Israel,” “Pro-Life Women” and “The War on Christianity: How Religious Freedom Is Under Attack” — all the sorts of issues that resonate in early-primary states Iowa and South Carolina.

Indeed, in 2012, 57 percent of GOP caucusgoers in Iowa and 65 percent of GOP primary voters in South Carolina identified as born-again or evangelical Christian.

A Des Moines Register poll released late last month showed that more than half of evangelical voters want candidates to spend a lot of time talking about abortion, same-sex marriage and candidates’ own religious beliefs. Those issues also are likely to get attention from the nine candidates that already are confirmed for the July 18 Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa.

“They are all vying for that vote,” said Robert Vander Plaats, head of the Christian conservative Family Leader, host of the Iowa summit.

But that creates a problem for the broader GOP electorate, some of which is indifferent to those topics and some of which believes focusing on them costs the party votes in general elections.

“Among all Republicans, less than half consider these issues worth talking about a lot,” said pollster J. Ann Selzer of Selzer & Company in Iowa.

But Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, which this fall is hosting a separate gathering of social conservatives called the “Values Voter Summit,” said the U.S. Supreme Court’s fast-approaching rulings on Obamacare subsidies and same-sex marriage could go a long way in defining the contours of the 2016 race and further energize social conservative voters ahead of 2016.

“It is not just the [candidate] options, but it is also the growing awareness and understanding that what we don’t need is just a Republican to replace Barack Obama and basically babysit America’s demise,” Mr. Perkins said. “We need a leader to go in an undo what this president has done, and you have candidates running that have a track record of doing that. So there is a sense of optimism that this is our chance to right this country.”

Among the early claimants to the religious conservatives’ support, there is still a reservoir of good will for Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Santorum, and faith-based voters say they also are excited about Mr. Cruz, Mr. Jindal, Mr. Carson, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Walker, and there is some more limited early interest in Mr. Bush and Mr. Paul.

The number of candidates could cause a different kind of problem this year, however: the inability to coalesce around a single champion, leaving the religious conservatives’ support split.

But Mr. Perkins said that’s a problem for the GOP as a whole, with so many contenders already in the race and more expected.

“That means they could slice and dice their votes, leaving more on the margins for the social conservative candidate to emerge with a plurality,” he said.

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