OXON HILL, Md.— Some of the GOP’s most prominent conservatives insisted Friday that Republicans should emphasize hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage in this year’s midterm elections, exposing an ideological divide within a party trying to capture the Senate and then the White House.
Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist pastor and former governor of Arkansas, set the tone early on the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference.
‘‘If this nation forgets our God, then God will have every right to forget us,’’ Huckabee said to cheers. ‘‘It’s time for government to scale back, not for people of faith to scale back.’’
The day also featured Governor Rick Perry of Texas and Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator. Like Huckabee, both have run presidential campaigns fueled in part by support from religious voters.
But Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, one of the final speakers of the day, represents a new generation of libertarian-minded Republicans less likely to oppose gay marriage or embrace laws allowing the government to affect people’s private lives.
‘‘There’s a great battle going on. It’s for the heart and soul of America,’’ Paul told a swelling crowd, focusing on civil liberties instead of social issues.
‘‘You may think I’m talking about electing Republicans. I’m not,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m talking about electing lovers of liberty.’’
The ideological tug-of-war played out a few miles from Washington at the nation’s largest annual gathering of conservative activists, where most of the prospective 2016 Republican presidential field will have taken the stage by Saturday’s end of the three-day gathering.
It was an early presidential audition for a party optimistic about its chances in the November congressional elections and eager to snap its two-election mini losing streak in presidential contests. National Republican leaders are working to expand the GOP’s appeal following a disappointing 2012 election season.
The political debate over abortion shows no signs of being resolved, 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 the issue than middle-aged Americans, but the nation is split on the deeply personal issue.
The politics of gay marriage are different. A growing number of high-profile Republicans — including Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and former Vice President Dick Cheney — have announced support for same-sex unions, despite a national party platform that does not. And a series of recent court rulings have found state laws that outlaw the practice may be unconstitutional. Polls suggest that young people solidly support gay marriage, while opposition is strongest among the oldest Americans.
Last week, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona, a Republican, vetoed a bill adopted by the state’s GOP-led Legislature that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gays.
The 2012 elections illustrated the risks for Republican candidates who focus on social issues. Missouri Senate candidate Todd Aiken said pregnancies in cases of ‘‘legitimate rape’’ are rare. In Indiana, Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said ‘‘even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.’’
Both candidates lost, hurting the GOP’s most recent drive for the Senate majority.
Santorum insisted that Republicans not abandon conservative values.
‘‘We’re told we have to put aside what we believe is in the best interests of the country so a Republican candidate can win,’’ Santorum said. But victory on those terms would be ‘‘a devastating loss for America,’’ he said.
Perry avoided social issues in his remarks, instead criticizing Democratic governors for leading states with higher taxes, more regulations, and fewer jobs. He also suggested that Washington politicians in both parties have seized too much power and it’s time to elect ‘‘the right kind of leaders.’’
Still, the day’s speaking program was dominated by social conservatives, such as former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, who offered little tolerance for Republicans who ‘‘lack the courage to stand and fight’’ against gay marriage and abortion rights.