OXON HILL, Md . — Some of the GOP’s most prominent conservatives insisted Friday that Republicans should emphasize hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage in this year’s midterm elections, exposing an ideological divide within a party trying to capture the Senate and then the White House.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist pastor, set the tone early in the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference.
“If this nation forgets our God, then God will have every right to forget us,” Huckabee said to cheers. “It’s time for government to scale back, not for people of faith to scale back.”
The day also featured Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who, like Huckabee, have run presidential campaigns fueled in part by support from religious voters.
But Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, one of the final speakers of the day, represents a new generation of libertarian-minded Republicans less likely to oppose gay marriage or embrace laws allowing the government to affect people’s private lives.
“There’s a great battle going on. It’s for the heart and soul of America,” Paul told a swelling crowd, focusing on civil liberties instead of social issues.
“You may think I’m talking about electing Republicans. I’m not,” he said. “I’m talking about electing lovers of liberty.”
The ideological tug-of-war played out a few miles from Washington at the nation’s largest annual gathering of conservative activists, where most of the prospective 2016 Republican presidential field will have taken the stage by Saturday’s end of the three-day gathering.
It was an early presidential audition for a party optimistic about its chances in the November congressional elections and eager to snap its two-election mini-losing streak in presidential contests. National Republican leaders are working to expand the GOP’s appeal following a disappointing 2012 election season.
The political debate over abortion shows no signs of being resolved, more than 40 years after the Supreme Court legalized the procedure in the case of Roe v. Wade. Young people today are somewhat more conservative on the issue than middle-aged Americans, but the nation is split on the deeply personal issue.
The politics of gay marriage are different. A growing number of high-profile Republicans — including Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and former Vice President Dick Cheney — have announced personal support for same-sex unions, despite a national party platform that does not. And a series of recent court rulings have found state laws that outlaw the practice may be unconstitutional.
Polls suggest that young people solidly support gay marriage, while opposition is strongest among the oldest Americans.
Last week, Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill adopted by the state’s GOP-led Legislature that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gays.
The 2012 elections illustrated the risks for Republican candidates who focus on social issues.
Republican Missouri Senate candidate Todd Aiken said pregnancies in cases of “legitimate rape” are rare. In Indiana, Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Both candidates lost, hurting the GOP’s most recent drive for the Senate majority.
Santorum insisted that Republicans not abandon conservative values.
“We’re told we have to put aside what we believe is in the best interests of the country so a Republican candidate can win,” Santorum said. But victory on those terms would be “a devastating loss for America,” he said.
Perry avoided social issues in his remarks, instead criticizing Democratic governors for leading states with higher taxes, more regulations and fewer jobs. He also suggested that Washington politicians in both parties have seized too much power and it’s time to elect “the right kind of leaders.”
Still, the day’s speaking program was dominated by social conservatives, such as former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, who offered little tolerance for Republicans who “lack the courage to stand and fight” against gay marriage and abortion rights.
“I have a message for these profiles in cowardice who often display the backbone of a chocolate eclair and cave the minute they’re criticized,” Reed said. “We’re not going to follow lukewarm so-called leaders any more whose god is their ambition, whose idol is power.”
It was a different story in the crowded hallways outside the main ballroom, where a younger generation of libertarian-minded Republicans said the GOP should focus on the economy and avoid the culture wars of the past.
“The social issues should be kept to the states, and even at the state level it shouldn’t be a big focus,” said Kyle Brooks, an 18-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and secretary of College Republicans there.
Paul was a favorite of such voters, many of whom had backed his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian.
“I don’t think the government should be involved in dictating how we live our lives,” said Chris Anders, the 42-year-old West Virginia state coordinator for Campaign for Liberty, a political group formed from the ashes of Ron Paul’s past presidential campaigns.
Across the river in Washington, Democrats were paying close attention.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin said that “conservatives are doubling down on the same divisive social issues that alienated voters year after year.”
Associated Press writer Michael Mishak contributed to this report.