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2016 GOP contenders woo religious conservatives at Values summit

At the Values Voter Summit, two likely 2016 GOP hopefuls pitched themselves to social conservatives.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks at the 2014 Values Voter Summit September 26, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks at the 2014 Values Voter Summit September 26, 2014 in Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON — Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, former Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee sought to win points with Christian conservatives Friday at the 2014 Values Voter Summit, just months before the 2016 Republican presidential primary battle begins in earnest.

Cruz’s sermon-like speech won the crowd’s support easily — the sheer excitement in the packed ballroom suggested the Texas lawmaker will fare well in the presidential straw poll to be held here on Saturday. Meanwhile, Paul, Kentucky's junior senator, tried to sell the crowd on how his libertarian politics are necessary for virtue and family values.

Santorum, on the other hand, saw a lesser reception. Perhaps it was due to the after-lunch billing or just today's speech, but the crowd was more unresponsive during his speech, his ninth appearance at the nine-year-old Summit.

He earned just five moments of applause during his address, whereas Cruz's speech was punctuated by regular applause, hoots, and hollers. Santorum had social conservatives behind him in a big way in 2012, so his reception may signal a decline of his social conservatives' support of the former senator.

The Louisiana governor didn't initially rile up the crowd, but his jokes, family stories, and comfortable, off-the-cuff delivery gained momentum as he spoke. By the end of the speech, he had the audience laughing and excited. "If you like your religious liberty, you can keep your religious liberty," Jindal joked to crowd guffaws. 

Arkansas' Huckabee sounded quite a bit like a candidate, when he structured his speech around the infamous 2008 Hillary Clinton 'when the phone rings' campaign ad. "I think we know who we don’t want answering the phone," he said early in his speech.

Cruz, Paul, Santorum, Jindal, and Huckabee are considered likely to compete for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. Santorum noted that he’d be out with a new book in February, just as 2016 campaigning cycle kicks off in earnest.

Cruz—who won last year’s straw poll two weeks after his 21-hour Senate floor faux-filibuster against Obamacare—reminded attendees of the one-year anniversary of that all night talk-a-thon.

His address was based loosely around Psalm 30 and predicted a kind of salvation from the Obama presidency.

“In 2017, with a Republican president in office, we’re going to sign legislation repealing every word of Obamacare,” he said. “Joy cometh in the morning.”

He pitched himself as values-driven Republican with a plan to “turn this country around."

“There are people in Washington who say Republicans to win have to abandon values,” he said. “Our values are who we are. Our values are why we’re here.” 

Cruz skipped the podium and teleprompter other attendees used, walking around the stage and feeding off the crowd’s approval.  His easy demeanor gave the speech a campaign feel that was particularly obvious when he suggested a day-long debate with the likely 2016 Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, over the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling. The court ruled in that case that closely held companies with religious objections to birth control could refuse to abide by the mandate under Obamacare to provide it to employees. 

“Me? I’ll stand with the nuns,” Cruz said, referring the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are suing the government over the contraception mandate.

Unlike Cruz’s easy comfort, Paul appeared a bit less at home, standing behind a podium and reading from the teleprompter, and speaking quickly.

Paul—whose libertarian views don't always sync with those of Christian conservatives -- said his policies were key to preserving family values. 

“What American needs is not a politician with more promises, what America really needs is a revival,” Paul said, earning his first cheers of the speech. He went on to argue that that the revival depends on fusing freedom and virtue together.

“Liberty is exactly essential to virtue,” he said. 

Paul championed his anti-abortion stance; he was introduced to the crowd by a video montage of his own pro-life remarks interspersed with sonograms of babies in the womb. “I’m one who will march for life and who will stand up in defense of life as long as I’m privileged to hold office,” Paul told the crowd.

Paul’s strongest applause came when he brought up was his failed legislative attempt to stop foreign aid from reaching countries that persecute Christians.

“Let’s stop this madness!” he said.

Santorum’s speech focused largely on mobilizing activists. “Quit being scared and start being activists and making things happen!” Santorum said, in one well-received line. He encouraged the attendees to fight in the upcoming November election in particular.

“The chance of us picking up seats in 2016 are pretty close to zero. We [need to] go all out this time for the people that we know that are going to be with us, go all out,” he said.

All three senators criticized Obama repeatedly. Paul was particularly vocal, calling the president an "autocrat" who acts "like a king." Santorum said the president was "in Disneyland" and a "descendant of the French revolution."

Jindal argued that the American dream was founded in the kind of values the Summit champions.

The Obama administration, he argued, is trying to "redefine the American dream," he said, saying that the president's version sounds like "envy and redistribution, blaming people for being successful, more government spending and managing the slow decline of America."

Political strategists "think the key to a strong America is economic strength and our democratic system of governing," he said. "Here’s what I believe: As America’s culture goes, so goes America. Not – ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid,’ rather – ‘It’s the Culture, Stupid.’"

Huckabee's 'when the phone rings' speech hit all the hot topics. When the phone rang over Benghazi? "Nobody answered" At Health and Human Services over Obamacare? "Nobody's there." At the National Security Association? "They're the only one who answers," Huckabee joked.

He also called for social conservative voters to mobilize, a kind of get-out-the-evangelicals call to action, saying there are 80 million evangelicals in the country, with just half registered voters, and just half of them voting in presidential elections, and another halving--just 10 million--who vote in midterm elections.

"What would happen if instead of half of those voters being registered, 75% of them were? What would happen if instead of half of them voting, 75% of them voted. If 10% more evangelicals had voted in the last election, we would have a different president than we do now," Huckabee said.

The senators and others at the summit spoke repeatedly of Christian persecution, at times portraying religious conservatives as persecuted victims who need to fight back.

Describing the persecution of Nigerian girls kidnapped by the extremist group Boko Haram, and a Sudanese woman who was persecuted for being Christian, Cruz said, “This is not something abstract and theoretical, this is something each of us have lived."

All three earned standing ovations, though Paul and Cruz' appeared to be the strongest. Afterwards, Cruz walked through the crowd, chatting with attendees.