WASHINGTON (AP) — Shying away from social issues is not a winning strategy for Republicans, whose rhetoric on those subjects has at times alienated voters and cost the GOP elections, party leaders are telling anti-abortion activists.
Instead, Republicans have got to figure out how to talk about abortion and gay marriage without ditching their values or scaring away voters, the officials told a confab Wednesday organized by the Susan B. Anthony List.
"So many voices in the party are saying, 'Shut up and sit down,'" said Gary Bauer, a conservative who ran for president in 2000. "They think the party needs to ignore that issue and spend time on really popular economic ideas."
They're just wrong, he and other conservatives argued. Winning votes is possible.
Black and Hispanic voters side with social conservatives on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said. Republicans, however, are doing a poor job reaching out to those reliably Democratic blocs, he said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said victories that sacrifice principles aren't worth winning, but a little compassion goes a long way.
Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., said some of her male colleagues need a lesson on how to talk about abortion rights without scaring away voters.
And Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., said candidates cannot hope the issue never comes up.
The political debate over abortion shows no signs of ending 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 abortion than middle-aged Americans, but the nation is split on the deeply personal issue.
Therein lies potential and peril for Republican contenders.
"They're getting more votes (among black and Hispanic voters) than we are. That's how Obama beat us twice," Graham said.
Nationally, Obama carried 93 percent of black voters and 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks. But they also show uneasiness with liberal social positions in polling.
"The more we think about the baby, the better off we're going to be," Graham said. "We're going to win this argument, but it's going to take some time."
Wagner said campaigning is a minefield for candidates who aren't prepared to discuss their goals.
"We have to be so very careful," said Wagner, a former Republican National Committee leader and ambassador during President George W. Bush's tenure. "If you talk about the child, the humanity, the life, you message much better."
And Black said Republicans shouldn't try to dodge the issues: "They can go there, but they have to go there in a way that's compassionate."
Such calls for muted language on abortion ran counter to some of the other rhetoric offered from other party leaders through the daylong conference.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a tea party favorite, noted that backers of abortion rights have chanted "Hail, Satan" to silence their enemies. "Arm-in-arm, chanting 'Hail, Satan,' embracing the right to take the life of a late-term child," Cruz said of supporters of abortion rights.
He was referencing protests in Austin, Texas, last year over an abortion bill. While anti-abortion activists were giving speeches and singing "Amazing Grace," others tried to drown them out with chants.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said those who support abortion rights favor a "culture of death" and engage in "savagery."
And GOP Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska told the activists: "Abortion is not a women's issue. It is not a men's issue. It is not a health care issue. It is a violence issue."
The unflinching rhetoric comes as the potential 2016 presidential contenders attempt to make inroads with the GOP's socially conservative wing. That bloc, which enjoys outsized influence in deciding the nominee, is open to many of the potential White House candidates but has yet to rally behind one of them.
The key for these voters is backing a 2016 candidate who opposes abortion.
Huckabee, who tapped into social conservatives' hopes during his 2008 presidential campaign and is considering another White House run, said he shares Republicans' desire to log victories.
"But I want to win them for a cause that's worth fighting for," said Huckabee, who was tapped to give the dinner keynote speech.
"Whether it's politically expedient or not is of no consequence to me," he added.
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