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Washington — Fighting to improve their brand, leading Republicans rallied behind religious liberty at a Friday gathering of evangelical conservatives, rebuking an unpopular President Barack Obama while skirting divisive social issues.

Speakers did not ignore abortion and gay marriage altogether on the opening day of the annual Values Voter Summit, but a slate of prospective presidential candidates focused on the persecution of Christians and their values at home and abroad — a message GOP officials hope will help unify a divided party and appeal to new voters ahead of November's midterm elections and the 2016 presidential contest.

"Oh, the vacuum of American leadership we see in the world," Texas Sen. Cruz declared Friday in a Washington hotel ballroom packed with religious conservatives. "We need a president who will speak out for people of faith, prisoners of conscience."

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul echoed the theme in a speech describing America as a nation in "spiritual crisis."

"Not a penny should go to any nation that persecutes or kills Christians," said Paul, who like Cruz is openly considering a 2016 presidential bid.

The speaking program included such potential 2016 candidates as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Several possible Republican candidates — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush among them — did not attend. The group has positions on social issues across the spectrum — from the libertarian-leaning Paul, who favors less emphasis on abortion and gay marriage, to Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor whose conservative social values define his brand.

The event host, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, said "a fundamental shift" is underway toward religious freedom among Republicans of all stripes.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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