Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has become a leading voice for conservatives and Tea Party activists.
(Photo: Daniel Sangjib Min, AP)
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - Sen. Ted Cruz was greeted like a rock star Friday at a major gathering of social conservatives, exhorting the audience at the eighth annual Values Voter Summit to stand firm against President Obama's health care law.
The Texas Republican, who has become the face of opposition to the Affordable Care Act, was interrupted about a half-dozen times by protesters. And even as Cruz acknowledged their right to speak, he dismissed them as tools of the White House.
"It seems President Obama's paid political operatives are out in force today," he said. "And you know why? The men and women in this room scare the living daylights out of them."
Cruz gained national attention for his 21-hour, filibuster-style protest of the health care law in late September. His insistence on defunding what has become known as Obamacare led to the budget standoff that sparked the partial government shutdown, now in Day 11.
While House Republicans kept passing stopgap spending bills with restrictions to the health care law, Senate Democrats refused and insisted on a bill without conditions.
Cruz's message of religious liberty and freedom - echoed by his fellow Tea Party favorites Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah - received cheers as did his criticisms of what he called Obama's "feckless foreign policy."
"We have a couple of years to turn this country around ... or we go off into the oblivion," Cruz said.
The three-day Values Voter Summit is billed as one of the "premiere" events for social conservatives, who want to ensure that their views on same-sex marriage and abortion remain in the political spotlight.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council which hosts the event, said in an interview Thursday that attendees will hear the message of "hold the line" against the Obama administration.
The summit, now in its eighth year, has become a showcase for the Republican Party's up-and-coming stars and a proving ground for White House hopefuls. A presidential straw poll will be conducted.
Perkins called Cruz, Paul, Lee and Rubio the "de facto leaders of conservatives, of the Republican Party even."
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another possible Republican presidential contender, is not on the schedule of speakers. Perkins told CNN and The Hill that "we invite conservatives that we work with."
After Republicans failed to win the White House last year, there has been much focus on the party retooling its message and approach. Exit polls showed that white evangelical voters and voters who went to church weekly supported Republican Mitt Romney, while blacks and Hispanics, Jewish voters and those who don't strongly identify with a religion were won by Obama.
Perkins said Obama's re-election should not be taken as a sign that social conservative issues are waning. The problem, he said, was Romney.
"In 2012, we put forth a major effort, not because of the candidate (Romney) but because we knew what we had in Obama," Perkins said. "It wasn't enough in the end and what it showed was the Republican candidate did not connect with the base."
The Republican National Committee has stepped up its outreach to voters of faith and recently hired Chad Connelly, a former chairman of the South Carolina GOP and a Southern Baptist, to help lead that effort. Mike Mears, who used to work for the Family Research Council and other conservative groups, is working with faith-based organizations, think tanks and Tea Party groups and soliciting their advice to help the RNC as it works to elect more Republicans.
The summit is also attracting notice from groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and NAACP, which say the Family Research Council and American Family Association - the event's host and one of its sponsors - have long records of anti-gay rhetoric and actions. Their coalition earlier in the week wrote a letter calling on members of Congress and other public officials to "not lend the prestige of your office" by speaking at the event.
Other groups signing that letter include the National Council of La Raza, People for the American Way, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Faithful America and GLAAD.