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GOP presidential hopefuls likely to woo conservative base with 'religious freedom'

"Religious freedom” is emerging as one of the key issues for 2016 candidates to rev up the GOP’s older, whiter party faithful.

As Republicans grapple with whether to heed the lessons of 2012 or double down on their base, “religious freedom” may emerge as one of the key issues for 2016 candidates in the latter camp to rev up the GOP’s older, whiter party faithful.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal -- both potential presidential contenders -- were among the staunchest defenders last week of controversial religious freedom measures in Indiana and Arkansas that sparked nationwide condemnation. While proponents insisted the laws would add another layer of protection against government interference in people’s religious beliefs, critics warned they would serve as a cudgel to undermine hard-won LGBT protections. Both states’ Republican governors ended up signing legislation that seemed to keep the laws’ potential harm and criticism at bay.

But Santorum and Jindal weren’t happy with those so-called “fixes,” arguing on Sunday that it was faith-based businesses -- not LGBT people -- who were facing discrimination.

“If you’re a print shop, and you are a gay man, should you be forced to print ‘God hates fags’ for the Westboro Baptist Church, because they hold those signs up?” Santorum asked on CBS’ "Face the Nation," drawing a clumsy analogy to the Christian business-owner who has to provide services for a same-sex wedding.

Among other potentially harmful consequences, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) originally passed in Indiana and Arkansas would have allowed businesses to cite their religious beliefs as justification for bucking nondiscrimination ordinances. But the gay man in Santorum’s scenario would have no religious objections to turn to in refusing to print an offensive sign for the Westboro Baptist Church, so RFRA wouldn’t have protected him regardless of whether his governor signed a “fix” or not.

Related: Politicians respond to religious law 'fixes'

Logical inconsistencies aside, though, Santorum’s argument reflects one side of a debate currently gripping the GOP as its members attempt to devise the winning formula for 2016. In one corner, you have presidential hopefuls like Santorum, Jindal, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz who chalk up the last two election losses to the candidates’ failures to energize the base. In the other, you have contenders like Jeb Bush and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul who believe the key to success lies in broadening the party’s appeal, not intensifying it among a shrinking group of mostly white, Christian voters.

The Republican National Committee made a similar expansionist argument in its 2012 autopsy report, entitled the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” which implored the GOP “to make sure that young people do not see the Party as totally intolerant of alternative points of view.” Gay rights, in particular, mark a “generational difference within the conservative movement,” the report said -- one potential presidential candidates need to handle with care.

Arkansas’ Gov. Asa Hutchinson specifically pointed to this divide when he asked lawmakers last week to amend a newly-passed RFRA so that it would more closely resemble a federal version. Speaking to reporters at the State Capitol in Little Rock Thursday, Hutchinson confessed that even his own son signed a petition asking him to veto the law.

“It shows that there’s a generational difference of opinion on these issues,” Hutchinson said.

But clearly, there are some in the emerging Republican presidential field who either don’t agree with the RNC’s recommendations, or flat out don’t care. And instead of showing some sensitivity toward gay rights issues, they’re trumpeting the old script louder than ever.

Earlier this year, Cruz and Jindal went so far as to endorse a Constitutional amendment that would enable states to outlaw same-sex marriage in the likely event that the Supreme Court finds existing bans unconstitutional by June. Moving forward, “religious freedom” may give them even more ammo to connect with that portion of the Christian conservative base -- much to the chagrin of several longtime political strategists, who insist that issues like religious freedom will be ultimately be losers for whoever wins the nomination.

“Most of the country saw what the Indiana law was intended to do, and the fact that the candidates and the advocates for the law were so surprised by the reaction indicates a problem that will hurt the party going forward, especially in the general election,” Jimmy LaSalvia, political strategist and Dole Institute of Politics fellow, told msnbc. “If you get tripped up on discrimination, that’s a really bad sign.”

There are other political operatives, however, who insist that playing to the base is the way go, particularly in a primary field as crowded as this one will likely be.

Related: Possible GOP 2016ers say religious businesses face discrimination

“I don’t think it’s the last we’ve heard of [religious freedom,] but I don’t think it’s going to hurt anybody -- except for maybe Jeb,” conservative consultant Keith Appell told msnbc.

Of the potential presidential candidates who last week offered their unqualified support for Indiana’s RFRA, Bush was the only one to eventually back away in the face of mounting criticism. Days after saying Indiana Gov. Mike Pence did “the right thing” by signing the RFRA, Bush told attendees at a fundraiser in Silicon Valley (home to some of the most ardent religious freedom opponents) that the Hoosier State could have taken “a better approach” to ensure that the law wouldn’t allow for discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“Anytime you try to split the baby or have it both ways, it’s really a stupid strategy,” Appell said. Additionally, he added, staying on religious freedom may come in handy during the general election, assuming the Democratic presidential nominee ends up being Hillary Clinton. While the former secretary of state now supports same-sex marriage, Clinton’s “evolution” on the matter happened later than some would have liked. Plus, she was first lady at the time when her husband, President Bill Clinton, signed the federal RFRA into law.

“The last thing [Clinton] wants to talk about is religious freedom,” Appell said.

Still, the prevailing wisdom among the consulting class seems to be that Republican presidential hopefuls should avoid taking on the mighty gay rights movement, be it on issues related to marriage or to religious freedom (which is quickly emerging as the 2016 replacement for “traditional marriage” anyway.) Whether or not the candidates decide to listen remains to be seen.

“Until the Republicans shore up their support for freedom with the LGBT community, they’ll never win the presidency,” Kevin Sheridan, a GOP strategist, told msnbc. “I would not advise them to ignore their core conservative base, but would not play into making this issue the issue of the election.”

However, Sheridan added, “I don’t think they’d heed the advice from people like me. I think it’s foolish, but I think they want to beat this drum. So yeah, good luck to them.”