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GOP politicians including Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush continue to court social conservatives

BY STEVE PEOPLES, ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- A fresh debate has erupted this week within the GOP over explosive social issues, as House Republicans press for a restrictive abortion measure and a prominent religious conservative urges the party's 2016 prospective presidential candidates to embrace conservative positions on abortion and gay marriage.

The fight for the direction of the Republican Party will be on display Thursday at a Washington conference hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group created by former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed. Designed to strengthen the evangelical influence in national politics, the conference gives many religious conservative activists their first look at potential 2016 presidential candidates.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul are among those set to address the coalition on Thursday. Republican stars on the schedule Friday and Saturday include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus.

Reed told The Associated Press that religious conservatives have a simple message for GOP leaders: "Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the pro-life, pro-family and pro-marriage positions that candidates have taken and will take in the future are not a liability at the ballot box, they're an asset."

The Republican National Committee does not necessarily agree.

Just three months ago, Priebus endorsed an RNC report that linked the future success of the Republican Party to more tolerant attitudes on social issues such as gay marriage.

"When it comes to social issues, the party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming. If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues," reads the report by GOP leaders following painful election losses last fall.

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