By STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing lingering tensions in his party, the chairman of the Republican National Committee urged religious conservatives Saturday to support the GOP's plans to expand.
"I would just ask you that we come together and that we pray for the future of this country," Reince Priebus said on the final day of the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference that brought several Republicans leaders together with evangelical activists.
"I'm a Christian. I'm a believer. God lives in my heart. And I'm for changing minds, not changing values," Priebus said.
Religious conservatives have been skeptical of establishment Republicans in Washington and the RNC's plan for growth, which calls for more tolerant attitudes on immigration and social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. The party is working to rebuild after a painful 2012 election season in which Republicans lost the presidential contest and a handful of winnable Senate contests.
"When it comes to social issues, the party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming," according to an RNC report commissioned by Priebus after that election and released in March. "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."
Priebus did not mention those recommendations in his remarks, but he did repeat calls for significant changes to the Republican presidential nominating process — particularly, fewer debates and a shorter primary season.
The RNC's call for tolerance was not popular during the three-day gathering of social conservative leaders, which attracted several politicians considering 2016 presidential bids.
The conference's final speaker, former vice presidential nominee and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, rejected calls for an immigration overhaul that includes a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
Palin, who is rejoining Fox News Channel as an analyst less than half a year after they decided to part ways, also offered a warning to "the good old boys" in the GOP leadership who are calling for conservative activists to tone down aggressive rhetoric.
"You do not marginalize, you don't discredit and dismiss, every day average hard-working Americans — those who are part of that grass-roots tea party movement," she said.
"Just let them tell us to sit down and shut up," Palin said later, "which I refuse to do."
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