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At Values Voter Summit, 2016 hopefuls pitch social conservatives

At the Values Voter Summit, Republican hopefuls will attempt to appease the far-right without getting mired in social issues that could alienate them in 2016.

With the midterms weeks away and the 2016 cycle kicking off in earnest shortly thereafter, the GOP is trying to figure out how to win elections while keeping their far-right base happy. The Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., this weekend will present an ideal opportunity for Republican presidential hopefuls — including Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Sen. Rick Santorum — to impress social conservatives who would make up a crucial portion of their base voters. 

Republicans have often tripped up in recent elections when talking about social issues — think Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock on rape and dozens of Republican comments on women's issues — so how 2016 hopefuls navigate the Values Voter Summit may signal how the party and candidates will handle explosive issues in the upcoming presidential election.

"What annual event has the Left so worried that they are spending tens of thousands in advertising dollars to stop? You guessed it; the Values Voters Summit."'

The focus of several of the weekend's events make it clear that the GOP is well aware of the hurdles that lay ahead.

More sessions than in the past two years advertise a focus on winning the election. “How Conservatives Can Win With Millennials and Women” and “Stop Losing Elections: It’s Time to Reclaim Blue Collar Conservatives” push the party's desire to win women and young folks, as well as build the kind of grassroots muscle President Barack Obama utilized to great success in 2008.

Marriage for same-sex couples promises to be a hot issue in particular. As public opinion has moved quickly to the left on marriage equality over the last few years, Republicans have struggled to appease their far-right members while not deterring moderates and independents. 

It’s a conundrum that is already playing out: A coalition of civil rights groups wrote a letter to the Republican National Committee on Wednesday, asking them to distance themselves from the Values Voter Summit. They also asked elected members not to attend because many of the participating groups have histories of expressing anti-gay rhetoric.

“Today, Chairman Priebus, we ask that you … call upon Republican officials to disassociate themselves from the groups behind the upcoming Values Voter Summit,” the groups wrote in a letter published in The Washington Post. “The reason is simple: These groups engage in repeated, groundless demonization of LGBT people — portraying them as sick, vile, incestuous, violent, perverted, and a danger to the nation.” 

The letter slams top executives at the Family Research Council (FRC), which hosts the summit, and two of the event's sponsors, American Family Association and Liberty Counsel, for making anti-gay remarks.

The RNC did not return requests for comment on the letter, but FRC President Tony Perkins isn’t shying away from the issue. He has been criticized for calling pedophilia a “homosexual problem” and the It Gets Better campaign “disgusting” and an effort to “recruit” kids to the gay “lifestyle." Perkins defended his remarks in a lengthy response.

“What annual event has the Left so worried that they are spending tens of thousands in advertising dollars to stop? You guessed it; the Values Voters Summit,” he wrote. “The Left is clearly discouraged by the effectiveness of the Values Voter Summit and is willing to fork over a lot of money to stifle speech they disagree with.”

A panel session titled “Marriage in America: The Road Ahead Panel” will take place in front of a full-house during Friday’s three-hour afternoon plenary session. A breakout session on Saturday is titled “The Future of Marriage: To the Supreme Court and Beyond.”

Birth control and abortion — longstanding topics for the summit — promise to remain a top issue in both this weekend's conference and in the 2016 race, as Democrats and Republicans feud furiously over what conservatives say is a matter of religious freedom and liberals say is an attempt to overrule women’s reproductive rights.

Three breakout sessions, “Pro-Life Battleground 2014,” “Moral Decline Causes Big Government” and “Sexuality in the 'Hook-Up' Culture,” will try to reconcile far-right views with Americans' overwhelming acceptance of birth control and highly polarized views on abortion.

In addition to presidential hopefuls, the usual conservative firebrands are all expected to take part in the event. Former Gov. Sarah Palin, Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, as well as the Duggar Family, Duck Dynasty’s Alan Robertson, Erick Erickson, and Glenn Beck, are all ready to take the stage this weekend.