WASHINGTON — Evangelicals in search of a new political standard-bearer are looking for more than just opposition to gay marriage and abortion.
At an annual meeting of social conservatives, a new wave of Republican senators auditioned Friday before prominent activists and religious leaders, deriding President Barack Obama's health care law and his handling of the economy and foreign policy.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas described a nation teetering on "the edge of a cliff." Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said U.S. foreign policy needed to stop a "war on Christianity." Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said the nation's economic problems represented "moral threats" to the stability of families.
"We can't stop talking about the importance of our values and our culture," said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. "We can't stop talking about them because the moral well-being of our people is directly linked to their economic well-being."
Social conservatives gathered at the annual Values Voter Summit while congressional Republicans struggled for an agreement with Obama on ending the government shutdown, now in its 12th day, and avoiding an economic default.
Few in the audience at the conference expressed interest in backing down from efforts to keep money from or delay Obama's health care law, a primary driver of the impasse.
Marlene Kellett of Columbia, Md., said Republicans needed to hold firm in their opposition to the law. But she expressed pessimism that Republicans would make progress.
"I'm very opposed to Obamacare -- it's a disaster," Kellett said. "But I'm not feeling very positive about it. So often the Republicans cave and they can't seem to get what they want."
Adrienne Grizzell of Lexington, Ky., said the accumulation of nearly $17 trillion in debt -- the source of a debate over whether to raise the nation's borrowing limit -- is too often shrugged off. "It's as if, 'No, it's not a problem, let's keep spending,"' she said. "Nobody is saying, 'OK, we've going to start spending less."'
While social issues are a touchstone, speaker after speaker stressed pocketbook issues a year after Democrats vilified GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney as being oblivious to the needs of middle-class families during tough economic times.
Cruz, whose speech was interrupted several times by immigration overhaul advocates, said the health law and Obama's spending priorities had put the nation on the wrong track. "We have a couple of years to turn this country around or we go off the cliff into oblivion," he said.
Lee said issues such as a lack of economic opportunity, stagnant wages and spiraling housing costs represented "moral threats to families' stability." Families, he said, "are bearing the brunt of all of these things and as a result too many are falling behind."
Rubio said too many families are struggling to pay for child care and grappling with student loan debts. Paul devoted his remarks to foreign policy, describing attacks on Christianity in the Muslim world.
The list of speakers included onetime GOP presidential candidates, too: former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Some at the conference said they were actively seeking a new group of conservatives to rally behind -- and made clear that they don't want capitulation.
"We don't have enough Ted Cruzes and Marco Rubios," said Jerry Skirvin, who runs a marketing firm in Lynchburg, Va.
"We have too many John McCains and Lindsey Grahams," he said, identifying GOP senators from Arizona and South Carolina, respectively, whom conservatives often accuse of seeking conciliation with Democrats.
Before the summit, Cruz and Paul held separate meetings with a group of evangelical leaders, including Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, which sponsored the event, former presidential candidate Gary Bauer and Robert Fischer, a South Dakota businessman. The senators were joined by their wives during the session and discussed their faith and views on issues.