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GOP divided by new debate on social issues

WASHINGTON -- A fresh debate has erupted within the GOP over social issues.

Republicans in Congress and statehouses across the nation are pressing for restrictive abortion measures just three months after party leaders warned against emphasizing divisive cultural topics. Prominent religious conservatives also are pushing the party to embrace limits on abortion and gay rights as evangelical activists gather in Washington.

Several potential Republican presidential candidates appear to be listening.

"This call for us to silence ourselves and to stop speaking about the values that we know work, is a big mistake," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told the Faith and Freedom Coalition's gathering. Rubio insisted that "every human life has value . . . whether they are born or not."

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul told the group that there is a "war on Christianity, not just from liberal elites here at home, but worldwide." He argued that America should not send foreign aid to countries across the Middle East that persecute Christians.

The comments to the group founded by former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed fed a deep division in a Republican Party still trying to recover from election losses last fall in the presidential race and several winnable Senate contests.

In an exhaustive postelection autopsy, the Republican National Committee said in a March report that the future success of the Republican Party -- particularly with women voters -- depends on more tolerant attitudes on contentious social matters.

"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," the report said.

Reed dismissed the RNC's findings as an unnecessary jab at religious conservatives. "We think you've got to add more young people, more Hispanics, more women, more African-Americans -- you've got to grow the movement and grow the party," Reed said. "But you don't do that by taking the most loyal constituents that you've got and throwing them under the bus."

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