WASHINGTON (AP) — Hillary Rodham Clinton is the one figure uniting religious conservatives frustrated by a leaderless Republican Party that's divided over foreign policy, immigration and social issues.
The prospect of another Clinton White House stirred anguish at the Values Voter Summit this weekend where hundreds of conservative activists debated the GOP's future and warned that the acknowledged but unannounced 2016 Democratic front-runner would cement what they see as President Barack Obama's attack on religious freedom.
"Never forget she will be Barack Obama's third and fourth term as president," Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, an unsuccessful GOP presidential candidate in 2012, said Friday night.
She was among the high-profile Republicans, including past and prospective White House contenders, at the annual conference attended by some of the most prominent social conservatives and hosted by the Family Research Council, well known for its opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
This year's gathering expanded its focus to religious freedom — or the persecution of Christians and their values at home and abroad. It was a message that GOP officials hope will help unify a fractured party and appeal to new voters ahead of November's elections and the next presidential contest.
But it was Clinton's name that was as much a rallying cry as the theme of religious liberty.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a prospective presidential candidate, challenged Clinton to "come and debate" Denver nuns who run nursing homes for the poor, called the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged. The nuns have challenged the Obama health law's requirement that some religious-affiliated organizations provide insurance that includes birth control.
"She can do that and she can explain why we should be fighting nuns," Cruz told 750 social conservatives at a banquet in Des Moines on Saturday night, after saying much the same at the Washington gathering. Many in the Iowa crowd burst into laughter at Cruz's comment.
In Washington, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a once and perhaps future contender, described Clinton as "tenacious."
"She's got all the skills and would be an incredibly formidable candidate," Huckabee told reporters, suggesting that Clinton is politically vulnerable. "She's got to go out and defend Barack Obama and her record in the first four years she was secretary of state."
Clinton would be the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination, while the GOP's field is large and lacks a clear front-runner. Two GOP establishment favorites, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, were not invited to the Values Voter meeting.
As he did last year, Cruz won the meeting's symbolic presidential preference straw poll with 25 percent of the vote, followed by conservative firebrand Ben Carson and Huckabee. Clinton earned one vote among more than 900 cast, although Family Research Council president Tony Perkins joked that even Mickey Mouse would have gotten a vote if listed on the ballot.
He said religious liberty "slipped as a priority" under Clinton's leadership at the State Department as she pursued a liberal agenda "in complete contrast to what values voters care about."
"She's going to have a more difficult time this go around than she did last time," Perkins said.
A CNN poll this summer found that four different would-be Republican candidates earned between 10 percent and 15 percent of support from self-identified conservatives: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Cruz and Huckabee. The same poll found that 73 percent of conservatives said Clinton doesn't generally agree with them on issues they care about.
"I think the hype will be, 'Let's elect the first woman president,'" said Tina Henold, who was at the conference and has home-schooled her three children in Toledo, Ohio, for 24 years. "We need to get away from hype and get more substance."
Like many others at the gathering, Henold said Clinton's history and her handling of the 2012 attack on the U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed, would hurt her chances.
Republicans contend that Obama and Clinton, as secretary of state, misled the public about the nature of the attack and could have saved lives if they had quickly mobilized the U.S. military.
"Mrs. Clinton, you're not going to get a free ride on this," said Gary Bauer, founder of the Campaign for Working Families and a presidential candidate in 2000. "You can't implement the policies and then run as if you were opposed to the policies. We're going to call you out."
Democrats have branded a special House panel investigating Benghazi as a right-wing effort to harm a potential Clinton presidential campaign. They reject notions that U.S. forces were ordered to "stand down" during the attack or that Clinton played a direct role in security decisions.
Lillian Kjellman, a freshman at Liberty University who attended the conference, said there was too much controversy surrounding Clinton and questioned whether she could to present a fresh message to the public after more than two decades in the public eye.
"I don't think she could win," she said.