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Hot Topics At Values Voter Summit: Boehner, Trump, Kim Davis


John Boehner's retirement is being claimed as a victory by some in his own party. That includes many of the religious conservatives gathered in Washington this weekend for the annual Values Voter Summit. Every year, it's an important stop for Republicans who want to be president one day, and it's a chance to connect with the passionate bloc of GOP primary voters. NPR's Don Gonyea was there as many candidates addressed the crowd.

Hi, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Hi there, Arun.

RATH: So did the news about John Boehner overshadow what the candidates set out there to accomplish?

GONYEA: It didn't really overshadow anything, but it was the thing that created a lot of the buzz at this big annual conference. As for the candidates, you know, several of them nodded to it and then went on with their usual speech with their usual, you know, tailored pitch to these Christian conservative voters and these activists. But for the most part, this was a good moment for the conservative presidential candidates, and the outsiders who really saw Boehner's announcement as a great opportunity to attack the GOP establishment - what they like to describe as the mushy middle of the party that is too quick to compromise. Again, a room like this is really important to a candidate like Texas senator, Ted Cruz. He sees winning the evangelical vote as his best hope and the thing that can keep him in the race until the end. And he credited those in the room for being a force behind Boehner's resignation. Then he went on to talk about why the party needs to nominate a true conservative for president. Give a listen.


PRES CAND/SEN TED CRUZ: Washington wants conservatives splintered. They want to chunk evangelicals over here, chunk the conservatives over here, a chunk of libertarians over here, a chunk of Tea Party folks over here. That's how, if we're splintered, that a moderate establishment candidate runs up the middle with 23 percent of the vote, steals the nomination and then loses to Hillary Clinton in the general election.


GONYEA: So you can hear the positive reaction there. When he talks about a moderate establishment candidate, he might be talking about a Jeb Bush, but he's also looking back at candidates like Mitt Romney and John McCain, who were supposed to attract Independent voters as well as the Republicans. And he says, look what happened to them.

RATH: Donald Trump has been reaching out to Christian conservatives lately. What did he have to say?

GONYEA: Well, it's never subtle with Donald Trump.


GONYEA: He, too, talked about Boehner basically saying, you know, he wasn't up to the job - just couldn't get it done. And then, you know, not long into his speech, he holds up a bible, and he says it was a gift from his mother. And then he opens it, and shows the inscription that she wrote to him when he was just a child. And he spoke about his faith as a Christian. Then, you know, bouncing around a bit as he does, he lamented that Christmas isn't what it once was and that you can't say Merry Christmas anymore, and this audience certainly likes that talk. And then he stressed that he's a good person, a nice person - so, again, nothing subtle there. But then - just like that, in classic Trump style - he went hard after one of his opponents for the nomination - Senator Marco Rubio, who had spoken earlier in the day to this same group. Give a listen to Trump.


PRES CAND DONALD TRUMP: I mean, you know, like you have this clown, Marco Rubio - I've been so nice to him.


TRUMP: I've been so nice. I've been so nice.

GONYEA: OK, we don't have to play anymore of it there. Again, this is a crowd that kind of likes Marco Rubio. You could hear that maybe Trump pushed it a little too far right there.

RATH: Wow. Now, not all of the Republican candidates were there. What can we read into who wasn't there?

GONYEA: Jeb Bush was not there, John Kasich was not there - the Ohio governor. Each of them has angered conservatives in recent weeks when they weighed in on the topic of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was briefly jailed because she wouldn't issues marriage licenses because of her opposition to same-sex marriage. So they probably would have been booed had they showed up. Incidentally, Kim Davis won an award last night from the Values Voter Conference; she was feted at a dinner in honor of the stand that she took.

RATH: That's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea. Don, thank you.

GONYEA: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Beginning in October 2015, Arun Rath assumed a new role as a shared correspondent for NPR and Boston-based public broadcaster WGBH News. He is based in the WGBH newsroom and his time is divided between filing national stories for NPR and local stories for WGBH News.
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