TIME

Cruz Walks a Careful Line on Immigration Reform

Ted Cruz
Cliff Owen—AP Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas gestures while he talks at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC), on April 29, 2015, at the National Press Club in Washington.

The GOP presidential hopeful opposes a path to citizenship, but casts himself as a supporter of legal immigration

Texas Senator and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz cast himself as a supporter of immigration reform on Wednesday, while criticizing Democrats for killing prospects of a bipartisan deal by insisting on a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“I consider myself a proponent of immigration reform,” Cruz said during a question-and-answer session in Washington hosted by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “There is no stronger advocate of legal immigration in the U.S. Senate than I am.”

Cruz was an outspoken detractor of the bipartisan rewrite of U.S. immigration laws that passed the Senate in 2013, which in the eyes of many Republicans would have shored up the party’s moribund support among Hispanic voters. His comments offer a telling glimpse of how he will attempt to find a delicate balance on a pivotal issue during his campaign.

The GOP presidential hopeful opposes citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but he stressed Wednesday the need to celebrate and encourage legal immigration. And he noted his support for dramatically increasing the available number of high-tech visas. His remarks drew an implicit contrast with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a likely rival for the GOP nomination, who recently took a protectionist stance on legal immigration levels.

Cruz declined to directly answer a question from TIME about whether he would support a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S., indicating a legislative fix should first focus on shoring up border security.

The freshman Senator said he believed there was significant bipartisan agreement around securing the borders and streamlining the legal immigration system. He criticized Democrats for crippling the recent reform plan in Congress by insisting on the “poison pill” of citizenship.

“They are treating immigration as a political cudgel,” Cruz said, “where they want to use it to scare the Hispanic community. And their objective is to have the Hispanic community vote monolithically Democrat.”

Many Republicans argued Mitt Romney’s hardline position on immigration was largely to blame for his dismal performance with Latino voters in the 2012 presidential race. But Cruz said his view—born out by his Senate campaign’s internal polling—was that Romney had alienated Hispanics with a message that appeared to denigrate middle-class Americans while venerating the wealthy.

Cruz argued that Republicans could win over Hispanics with a message of economic opportunity, saying Republicans “should be the party of the 47%.”

TIME ted cruz

What the Flap Over a Ted Cruz Dinner Means

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a town hall event at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa on April 1, 2015.
Nati Harnik—AP Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a town hall event at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa on April 1, 2015.

Correction appended: April 29, 2015

This is a short parable about the polarized state of American politics.

A Republican candidate holds a dinner one Monday evening at the home of two gay businessmen. It is an unusual pairing: the businessmen are prominent gay-rights activists, while the politician is a prominent opponent of same-sex marriage. But they have similar views on Israel and decide that’s enough to set aside those differences.

By Thursday, the politician, under pressure from supporters, releases a defensive statement. His spokesman says the venue was an error.

By Sunday both businessmen, facing boycotts and vitriol from their allies, post apologies on Facebook, calling the event “a terrible mistake.”

The politician is Ted Cruz, the Texas Senator seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. The businessmen are Mati Weiderpass and Ian Reisner, New York hoteliers who own properties in Manhattan and off Long Island that are geared toward gay guests. The swift backlash from their shared dinner says as much as any tale about our factionalized politics, in which anyone who appears to stray from tribal alliances faces the prospect of excommunication.

In some ways, the most surprising aspect of the summit was that either party was surprised by the blowback. Both sides cast a classic political transaction — the exchange of money for proximity to power — as a function of mutual support for Israel. “It was all things Israel,” Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler told the Washington Examiner. “They were in a discussion about something they all agreed about.”

But Cruz’s path to the presidency runs through Iowa, where evangelical activists who oppose gay marriage dominate the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. An ardent social conservative, Cruz is seeking a constitutional amendment that would protect the right of states to define marriage as an institution between one man and one woman.

A New York Times report that Cruz took a conciliatory tone on marriage during the dinner appeared to jeopardize his outreach to social conservatives. It didn’t help that the dinner was held in a swank duplex abutting Central Park, where a 23-year-old gay man was found dead in a bathtub in an apparent drug overdose last fall, according to police sources.

Cruz released a statement to reporters decrying the flap as a media witch hunt. “When asked, I stated directly and unambiguously what everyone in the room already knew, that I oppose gay marriage and I support traditional marriage,” he said. “One person further asked how [Cruz’s wife] Heidi and I would react if we found out one of our (4- and 7-year-old) daughters were gay. My reply: ‘We would love her with all our hearts. We love our daughters unconditionally.’

“A conservative Republican who is willing to meet with individuals who do not agree on marriage and who loves his daughters unconditionally may not reflect the caricature of conservatives promoted by the left, but it’s hardly newsworthy,” he added.

If Cruz opted for damage control through defiance, Reisner and Weiderpass were more chastened. Gay rights activists, who argue opposition to same-sex marriage is intolerance, were furious with the hoteliers’ decision to host Cruz. Over several days last week, the two were hit with the threat of business boycotts, canceled events and a protest rally. On Sunday, they took to Facebook to issue separate apologies.

“I am shaken to my bones by the e-mails, texts, postings and phone calls of the past few days,” Reisner wrote. “I was ignorant, naive and much too quick in accepting a request to co-host a dinner with Cruz at my home without taking the time to completely understand all of his positions on gay rights.”

“I share in Ian’s remorse. I, too, lay humbled with what has happened in the last week,” Weiderpass wrote in a separate post. “I made a terrible mistake. Unfortunately, I cannot undo this. You taught me a painful but important lesson.”

The post doesn’t specify what lesson he learned. But the larger moral of the parable seems clear: in American politics today, what keeps us apart matters more than what brings us together.

Correction: The original version of this story mischaracterized the event attended by Ted Cruz on April 20 in New York City. It was a dinner.

TIME rick perry

Rick Perry Takes a Swing at Three Senator Rivals

Rick Perry
Mark Humphrey—AP Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry runs off the stage after speaking at the National Rifle Association convention, Friday, April 10, 2015, in Nashville.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday he doesn’t think American voters “want to take a chance” on electing another Senator to the White House, delivering a sharp blow to the three declared Republican presidential candidates.

Speaking to reporters after a lunch with New Hampshire business leaders in Nashua, the second-time candidate, who has yet to publicly announce his presidential campaign, said that after electing first-term Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, voters don’t want to take the same risk again. Perry declined to say whether he believes Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul are qualified to be president.

“These are really bright, capable individuals,” Perry said. “But my point is, do you want to take a chance on someone who doesn’t have a track record of being an executive. When you walk off the Senate floor, you walk off the Senate floor. You don’t walk away from things when you are Governor, you have to deal with things.”

In his roundtable with the business leaders, the longest-serving governor in Texas history said he understood why people gravitated to Obama, but argued that his lack of experience let the country down. “I think he was talented, he was a unique individual,” Perry said, “but he had no executive experience, and I think the country is seeing the cost of that.”

Perry compared electing a well-spoken Senator to flying on a plane from Boston to London with a charming pilot who can explain the theory of aerodynamics, but has only 150 hours of flight time. “Or do you want to be with that grizzled old 20,000-hour captain who has taken that airplane back and forth thousands of times safely,” Perry asked.

“That’s the juxtaposition of a young inexperienced United States Senator versus a skilled, experienced executive,” he continued. “I just think the American people are going to want an executive after eight years of Barack Obama — I’m thinking they’re going to want to have somebody who has got a real track record: don’t tell me, show me.”

Perry, 65, addressed concerns that he is among the older generation of Republican candidates, quipping to reporters, “I’m just filling out my Medicare card, so I hope they don’t hold my age against me.”

TIME 2016 Election

Influential GOP Group Backs Cruz, Paul and Rubio

U.S. Senator Rubio announces bid for the Republican nomination in the 2016 U.S. presidential election race during speech in Miami
Joe Skipper–Reuters U.S. Senator Marco Rubio announces his bid for the Republican nomination in the 2016 U.S. presidential election race during a speech in Miami, Fla. on April 13, 2015.

Conservative outside groups could be poised to play a kingmaker role in the 2016 nominating contest

The first three candidates to enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination earned rave reviews Thursday from a powerful conservative group.

The Club for Growth, a deep-pocketed network of economic conservatives, published detailed analyses of the voting records of Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio that heaped praise on each of the candidates.

“Cruz, Paul, and Rubio are the real deal,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh. “We’ve looked at their records and their rhetoric, and they give us hope for the future of the GOP on fiscal policies.”

The verdicts weren’t a surprise. The Club backed each of the candidates in their campaigns for the Senate, and all three have amassed staunchly conservative voting records during their short stints on Capitol Hill. But the rave reviews were a reminder that conservative interest groups are poised to play a kingmaker role in the 2016 nominating contest, pulling candidates to the right in the process.

The Club has long been known for spending large sums to oppose candidates who stray on economic issues. But it is considering a more aggressive role in this year’s GOP primary, including a possible endorsement. In late February the group drew a range of presidential hopefuls — including Cruz, Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — to address a donors’ conclave in Florida.

The group found quibbles with each of the first three candidates, from Cruz and Paul’s support of special tax credits for NASCAR to Rubio’s proposed top marginal tax rate. But overall, it spared little praise for the Senators. “Cruz has shown extraordinary determination in the fight against Obamacare,” McIntosh said. “Paul’s budget proposals are a blueprint for limited government, and Rubio has drafted a massively pro-growth tax cut and reform plan.”

It’s a far cry from the 2012 presidential race, when the group was lukewarm or worse on candidates ranging from Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty to Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum. And there will surely be 2016 candidates who don’t fare as well. (Keep an eye out for a withering assessment of Mike Huckabee.) But the first batch of reviews was a early sign that this cycle’s crop of candidates will produce a far more competitive — and potentially just as conservative — race after the yawner of four years ago.

TIME Supreme Court

New Strategy Against Gay Marriage Divides GOP 2016 Field

US Supreme Court Declines To Hear Appeals On Same-Sex Marriage Cases
Alex Wong—Getty Images People come out from the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 6, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Activists want to take on the Supreme Court

MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa—The U.S. Supreme Court’s expected decision this spring that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry will, for most, mark the end of a decades-long culture war.

But a small circle of Christian activists aren’t giving up yet — and they are already winning over some Republican presidential candidates to their last-ditch effort. Resting their hopes on an effort to redefine the role of the federal judiciary, the activists’ argument takes on a central tenet of modern American politics: that the Supreme Court has the final say on what is the law of the land.

“There are three branches of government,” Andrew Schlafly, a lawyer and conservative activist, told TIME in an interview. “If the Supreme Court overreaches on an issue, the other two branches are there to check and balance it. The Supreme Court can make that decision, but it can’t enforce its own orders in a state. That’s up to the Legislative and Executive branches.”

It’s an argument with a long history in American politics, Schlafly says. He cites the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in the infamous Dred Scott case, which found that freed slaves were not American citizens and therefore had no standing to sue in court. “The Republican Party said no, we’re not going to go along with that,” Schlafly said. “And the next President was Abraham Lincoln and he did not enforce it.”

Most mainstream constitutional scholars find that argument confounding at best, with criticism from both liberal groups and the conservative Federalist Society.

“It was established a long, long time ago that the federal judiciary has the power to interpret our Constitution and to determine what government actions are constitutional and what are unconstitutional,” said Jeremy Leaming of the progressive American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. “This is pretty basic law-school type of stuff.”

If the Supreme Court decides that same-sex-marriage bans violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, then that’s the end of the story, he added. “States can’t choose and pick which parts of the Constitution to uphold and which not to.”

But regardless of how the argument is received in legal circles, it’s already having a significant effect on the Republican presidential primary, where a number of candidates are working overtime to earn the support of social conservatives who are opposed to same-sex marriage.

Last week in Iowa, where evangelical voters hold particular sway, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee emphatically argued that the high court’s ruling would not be the end of the debate.

“There is no such thing as judicial supremacy,” he said at an event organized by the conservative Family Leader group. He added that “unelected black-robed judges” can overturn laws, but even when they do, “then it goes to the legislature and the Executive Branch.”

After a speech at the same summit, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum told TIME that he agrees with Huckabee. “The idea that the courts can just wave their magic wands and not only invalidate laws but pass new ones is a novel concept in the concept of judicial review,” he said. “The courts in my opinion have far exceeded their Article III authority and they need to be pushed back upon by both the Executive and the Congress.”

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has argued nine times before the Supreme Court, stopped short of saying that as President he would refuse to enforce a high court decision that found same-sex-marriage bans unconstitutional, but he wrote in a paper provided to the Conservative Republicans of Texas that he would denounce such a ruling “for what it is. Lawless activism, subverting the Constitution.” He also called on conservatives to support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as “limited to one man and one woman” and to consider removing any Supreme Court justice that had “disrespected marriage.”

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has walked a similar tightrope. “Of course, court rulings must be respected, but it is the duty of the President to defend the Constitution, even when the courts won’t,” he wrote in a statement to Iowa conservative radio host Steve Deace.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul did not say that he would ignore a Supreme Court decision but called for term limits on “out of control, unelected federal judges.”

Other Republican presidential candidates have chosen to take a different route, noting their disagreement with state and federal courts’ pro-gay-marriage decisions without actively trying to undermine them.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said gay marriage was a “settled issue” in his state, while Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said court rulings must be respected. Both dropped appeals in their home states after losing same-sex-marriage cases. “For us, it’s over in Wisconsin,” Walker told reporters last fall. “The federal courts have ruled that this decision by this court of appeals decision is the law of the land, and we will be upholding it.”

After a Florida court declared same-sex marriage legal, former governor Jeb Bush said, “We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law.” All three governors have faced tough questions from some evangelical voters after conceding the fight.

Schlafly predicted that those candidates would lose support from the conservative Christian base in a Republican primary.

“I think voters are going to be extremely interested in whether a candidate is willing to stand up against overreach by the federal courts on marriage,” he said. “I think it will be a big issue — I think it will be the biggest issue.”

The Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage promises to have particular salience in the first caucus state of Iowa, where a powerful evangelical bloc has long pushed back against the idea of judges defining marriage laws. After the state supreme court ruled in favor of gay marriage in 2009, conservative activists led a successful campaign to deny three justices another term on the bench.

Some conservatives in Iowa are now hoping for a similar backlash against a federal decision. “It’s the Congress that makes the law, it’s the President that executes the law, it’s the people that can amend the Constitution,” said Iowa conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, who hosted Huckabee, Jindal, Santorum and Texas Governor Rick Perry. “The courts don’t get to do any of those.”

Last month, Deace, the Iowa radio host, asked a slice of the broad field of potential Republican candidates — Cruz, Huckabee, Walker, Perry, Paul, Rubio, Santorum, Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal and Donald Trump — to respond to an essay by John C. Eastman, a conservative professor of law, in which he made the case for ignoring a Supreme Court decision that found same-sex-marriage bans unconstitutional.

Perry, Trump and Jindal did not respond to Deace’s query. Jindal told TIME that he would wait for the court’s decision before weighing in on potential next steps.

Constitutional lawyers on both sides of the ideological divide have pushed back against these arguments. “It’s just fantastical to point to Dred Scott and the Civil War in reference to these cases,” said Leaming of the American Constitution Society. “It’s fantastical and it’s also quite frankly irresponsible.” But for some, at least, it may be good politics.

Read next: Transcript: Read Full Text of Sen. Marco Rubio’s Campaign Launch

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TIME Hillary Clinton

2016 Rivals Respond to Clinton Announcement

"We're ready for Hillary"

Rivals were chomping at the bit even before former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton formally announced her presidential bid Sunday afternoon, releasing statements and videos and hawking swag attacking the Democratic front-runner.

“We’re ready for Hillary,” said Republican hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz in a video. “Hillary Clinton represents the failed policies of the past.”

On Sunday morning, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush released a video saying the nation “must to do better than the Obama-Clinton foreign policy.”

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the only other woman eyeing the White House, said in a video statement that Clinton “doesn’t have a track record of leadership or trustworthiness. She’s not the woman for the White House.”

MORE Hillary Clinton’s Main Obstacle: Her Own Inevitability

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker tweeted that Americans want leaders from outside Washington, and tied Clinton to President Obama’s foreign policy, while former Texas Gov. Rick Perry tweeted that “America can’t afford another [four] years of the Obama-Clinton agenda.”

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, one of the GOP’s most intense Clinton critics, devoted a section of his presidential campaign web store to items mocking Clinton, including a Clinton hard drive—a reference to her deleted emails from her time at the State Department.

“I know Hillary Clinton. I served with Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton does not have the right vision to lead America,” said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in a statement.

MORE Liberal Groups Respond to Hillary Clinton Campaign Launch

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham also had harsh words. “The middle class is getting screwed by the administration’s domestic agenda & I believe it would be more of the same with Clinton,” he tweeted.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is expected to launch a Democratic challenge to Clinton from the left next month, addressed Clinton’s impending announcement Friday before an event in Iowa.

“Democrats expect a robust conversation about the issues we face as a nation and the challenges we face and the solutions to our problems,” he told reporters. “And they believe that that conversation needs to take place in something as important as a presidential primary. It would be an extreme poverty indeed if there were only one person willing to compete for our party’s nomination.”

Read next: Clinton Takes Road Trip to Iowa for First Campaign Event

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TIME politics

Why Ted Cruz’s Campaign Will Break Barriers

GOP Presidential Hopeful Ted Cruz Campaigns In South Carolina
Richard Ellis—Getty Images Senator and GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz answers questions from local media following a town hall meeting on April 3, 2015 in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Cruz was born in Canada

Go, Ted Cruz!

I am very excited that the senator from Texas is running for president, so that we can rid this country of one of its most pervasive myths: that you need to be born on U.S. soil to be a real American.

Admittedly, that is not why most of Cruz’s fervent backers are excited he’s in the race. Or why donors have already sent his campaign tens of millions. The reasons most of them are excited about Cruz’s candidacy — his aversion to compromise in politics, the centrality of God in his political platform, and his disdain for any sensible immigration reform — are precisely the reasons why I would be horrified to see him actually win the race I am so glad he is running. If Ted Cruz ever became president, I’d be tempted to flee to Canada.

Which brings me back to the one thing I love about Ted Cruz: The man was born in Canada!

If his candidacy is taken seriously, and his qualifications aren’t challenged in any of the primary states he contests, Cruz will be joining Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the list of presidential candidates whose campaigns broke barriers for minorities in the political process — in Cruz’s case, for Americans born outside the country.

I am one such “natural-born” American born elsewhere—in Mexico—and it’s been one of my lifelong frustrations to have people question my Americanness, and be utterly ignorant about the fact that you can indeed be born a U.S. citizen outside the country, if born to an American parent. I have nothing but the utmost respect for naturalized Americans who opt to become citizens later in life, but I am not one of them – I was born clenching my blue passport.

Who cares, you might ask, is the only difference between “natural-born” and naturalized Americans — in terms of their rights — is the right to be president? That awkward phrase “natural born” is in the Constitution, listed among the other qualifications for the highest office. Listed, but not defined, which is one of the reasons for all the confusion.

The qualification made its way into the Constitution because the Founding Fathers wanted to prevent their young republic from ever being hijacked by scheming European monarchs. It’s clear from both the prevailing English common law and from the first major law passed by Congress on matters of citizenship in 1790 that “natural-born” citizens included Americans born to an American father in another country. (American mothers, thankfully for me and Sen. Cruz, gained the equal right to transmit U.S. citizenship to their kids by a law passed in 1934.) Federal statutes over time have further defined what it means to be a natural-born American, often requiring a certain period of residency within the United States before an American parent could be entitled to pass on US citizenship to a child born outside the country.

So go on, Senator Cruz (but not too far!), and make everyone understand that you are as American as anyone, qualified (at least on this count) to be our leader. And don’t feel ashamed of your background — tell folks who come to your website where you were born, as opposed to just telling them, as your site currently does, where your mom was born.

Now that I have made clear that I belong in the “natural-born” club, I should add that it is an absurd club. All American citizens should share the same privileges, including the right to lead the nation. It’s shameful that countries like Germany and France are more open to the possibility of a naturalized immigrant becoming their head of state than we are. Can’t we just trust the voters to determine whether presidential candidates are sufficiently American for them?

Andrés Martinez is the editorial director of Zócalo Public Square and a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME 2016 Election

Republican Candidates Didn’t Just Talk Guns at NRA Event

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum at the 2015 NRA Annual Meeting in Nashville on Apr. 10, 2015.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum at the 2015 NRA Annual Meeting in Nashville on Apr. 10, 2015.

Most of the candidates talked about Iran, ISIS and religious freedom

Republican presidential hopefuls talked about a lot of things other than guns at a National Rifle Association conference Friday.

Almost the entire GOP field of likely candidates spoke at the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action leadership forum: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal were all on the docket, among others.

And while each of them touched on gun rights and the Second Amendment, they all broadened the theme of freedom to speak about other issues that have cropped up in their stump speeches.

Many of them spoke about the Middle East: the threat from ISIS, President Obama’s foreign policy and the recent framework for a nuclear deal with Iran.

“We’ve got a president who calls … Iran a place we can do business with,” said Walker. “I want a Commander-in-Chief who will look the American people in the eye and say that radical Islamic terrorism is a threat and we’re going to do something about it.”

Perry struck a similar tone. “Terrorist regimes must be defeated by strength, not words,” he said. “This agreement with Iran doesn’t limit Iranian nuclear ambitions, it legitimizes it.”

Rubio echoed that argument: “Our president refuses to look the threat of radical Islam in its eye and call it by its name.”

And Bush added, “In the face of rising danger from Russia, Iran and ISIS, among others, our President is indecisive and weak.”

Carson, on the other hand, wove together the Second Amendment, ISIS and border security: “We think about people from Honduras and Mexico and places like that coming in, but there are people who are watching us they’re all over this world. They’re called radical extremist Islamic terrorists, and they’re going to get in here any way that they can. And when they get there we need to be able to fight them, particularly if we have an administration that won’t fight them we need to be able to fight them ourselves.”

Most of the presumptive candidates also hit on a hot domestic topic — religious freedom, and the controversy over the recent religious freedom law in Indiana.

Jindal didn’t even mention gun rights until almost midway through his speech, beginning instead with harsh words for liberal criticism of the the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “It was an attack on the fundamental right to speech and association and the free exercise of religion,” he said, before tying it back to guns: “If these large forces can conspire to crush the First Amendment, it won’t be long before they come after the Second Amendment.”

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum added, “Freedom is under assault not by the gay and lesbian community, but by the Left in America … What is under assault today is the freedom to exercise your faith.”

TIME 2016 Election

Religious Liberty Becomes the Byword Among Iowa’s Social Conservatives

Arkansas Reacts To Gov. Asa Hutchinson's Addresses Of Controversial Religious Freedom Bill
Andrea Morales—Getty Images Demonstrators protest during a press conference by the Human Rights Campaign on the steps of the Arkansas State Capital in Little Rock, Ark. on April 1, 2015.

Conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats had just one question for the four presidential hopefuls gathered in the chapel at Iowa Wesleyan University: How would they preserve religious liberty?

It’s an idea as old as the country, but for the 600 people in the audience and social conservatives elsewhere in Iowa, religious liberty is fast becoming a new litmus test for Republican presidential candidates, thanks to a recent uproar over religious freedom legislation in Indiana and Arkansas.

Hosted by Vander Plaats’ Family Leader organization, the event Thursday was designed to make Iowa ground zero on the issue. For their part, the candidates’ responses showed broad agreement that religious freedom in general and Christianity in particular are under assault from the federal government.

“It is wrong for our government to discriminate against Christians,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told the crowd at Iowa Wesleyan, listing off a litany of alleged sins, from requirements that employer healthcare plans include contraceptive coverage to anti-discrimination laws that don’t allow businesses to reject work on same-sex weddings. “It is wrong for our government to force these businesses to choose between going out of business or violating our sincere beliefs.”

The event, which also featured former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, capped a day of GOP candidates scurrying to drive up their support with evangelical voters. Earlier in the day they—along with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz—attended a homeschooler conference hosted by the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators in the state capital.

“The last few weeks have been heartbreaking with what we’ve seen in Indiana and Arkansas,” Cruz told the roomful of about 1,000 homeschooling parents and children. “We’ve seen religious liberty under assault.”

Religious liberty, Vander Plaats said, “will be the key issue of the 2016 campaign” in Iowa.

The gatherings drew little in the way of disagreement. “I look at them not as opponents, but as colleagues,” Huckabee said of his fellow contenders at the evening summit. Perry opened his speech at the Family Leader praising Santorum as a national leader of the pro-life movement and Jindal for his efforts on job promotion at home.

But beneath the agreement was the hard reality that all five hopefuls are depending on the same united social conservative bloc to bring them over the finish line, and right now it is split between all of them as well as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The discussion comes as conservatives are basing their candidacies on the notion that Republicans have lost the White House because they have been insufficiently pure. Cruz argued that millions of evangelicals stayed home in the 2012 election out of frustration with more moderate candidates. “Our problem in previous elections wasn’t that we were too conservative, it was that we weren’t sincerely conservative,” Jindal said.

That political backdrop left the candidates jostling to prove their credentials fighting on issues important to evangelical caucus-goers and social conservatives nationally, from opposition to abortion to religious freedom laws like the one passed in Indiana. They touted their support for accreditation of Bible colleges.

“It’s part of a broader assault on people of faith,” Cruz said. “It’s part of a broader assault on Christians. It’s part of a broader assault trying to drive faith out of the public sphere. And in my view, in 2016, religious liberty should be front-and-center in this next election.”

“Religious liberty has been a passion of mine for over two decades,” Cruz added over the din of crying babies and gaggling toddlers. “I’ve been proud to have had the opportunity to fight and stand for religious liberty over and over and over again.”

Not to be outdone, Santorum, who won the caucuses in 2012, cast himself as ahead of the curve in fighting for religious liberty and against same-sex marriage when he was in the Senate a decade ago. “Karen and I homeschooled for 19 years—we were pioneers,” he added.

Perry drew applause for telling of his religious journey, describing himself as “lost” after leaving the military and returning to his parents’ home. “I was lost figuratively and literally about what I wanted to do in my life. God really wadded me up,” he said. “I told him I really wanted to live my life for him. So from 1977 on, God has given me an extraordinary second chance.”

Jindal scored the best-received performance Thursday evening with a biography-heavy stump speech punctuated by a strong condemnation of government interference in religious life. He criticized the “unholy alliance between Hollywood and big business” in Indiana opposing the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, calling it hypocritical that the same companies that do business in countries that discriminate against gays and lesbians and Christians were attacking the Indiana law.

Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses, used his time at the Family Leader conference to warn that conservatives were losing the fight to define marriage as only being between a man and a woman. He criticized President Obama for “using his precious time in the Oval Office to call people up to congratulate them for being gay.” He added, “[Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s] widow didn’t get a phone call, but a football player who came out did.”

TIME Rand Paul

Rand Paul Kicks Off 2016 Campaign

He's the second candidate to officially join the race

Sen. Rand Paul announced a run for the White House Tuesday, with a campaign launch that aimed to expand the GOP’s tent while stressing classic Republican themes of limited government and fiscal responsibility.

In a mid-morning speech in Louisville, the Kentucky Republican began by paraphrasing a victory speech from his 2010 Senate primary victory, in which he defeated a candidate backed by the state’s GOP establishment.

“I have a message, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We have come to take our country back,” he said. “Less than five years ago I stood just down the road in home town in Bowling Green and said those same words. I wasn’t supposed to win, no one thought I would.”

(The original speech was slightly different, as Paul had then begun by saying that he had he had “a message from the Tea Party.”)

Read More: Excerpts of Paul’s Remarks

Paul was introduced by an array of speakers, including former Republican Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma; Rev. Jerry Stephenson, who leads an inner-city ministry; and University of Kentucky student Lauren Bosler, and his wife, Kelley, among others.

His speech also contained several nods to his hopes to expand the Republican coalition to include younger voters and more ethnic diversity.

“This message of liberty is for all Americans, Americans from all walks of life,” he said. “The message of liberty, opportunity and justice is for all Americans, whether you wear a suit, a uniform or overalls, whether you’re white or black, rich or poor.”

At the same time, Paul ticked off several proposals from the standard Republican toolkit, including a constitutional amendment to force Congress to balance the budget, term limits for members of Congress and increasing school choice.

“We cannot, we must not dilute our message or give up on our principles,” he said. “If we nominate a candidate who is simply Democrat Light, what’s the point?”

Take the Quiz: Who Said It: Ron or Rand Paul?

On foreign policy, Paul split the difference, arguing that he backs a stronger military “unencumbered by overseas nation building.”

He argued that President Obama’s recent negotiations with Iran to end sanctions if the country halts its nuclear weapons programs are inadequate. Noting that he voted for the sanctions, he argued that Congress should also vote on the final deal and said that Obama had negotiated “from a position of weakness.”

“I will oppose any deal that does not end Iran’s nuclear ambitions and have strong verification measures,” he said.

Paul’s announcement made him the second candidate to officially jump in the race, after fellow Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who jumped in the race in late March.

Before Paul took the stage, the campaign played a video from country singer John Rich, “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” interspersed with clips of the Senator talking about his plans for economic “freedom zones,” an idea first pushed by former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp.

Read More: Rand Paul’s First Gaffe

Cruz welcomed Paul to the primary with a statement on his website Tuesday.

“I am glad to welcome my friend Rand Paul into the 2016 GOP primary,” he wrote. “Rand is a good friend, and we have worked side by side on many issues.”

Read next: How Rand Paul Wants to Change the GOP

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