Trump aims to paint himself as the choice of evangelicals
© Greg Nash

Republican presidential front-runner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump denies telling Bolton Ukraine aid was tied to investigations Former senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses Title, release date revealed for Bolton memoir MORE on Friday sought to kick back at critics who have questioned his faith, waving his childhood Bible in front a crowd of social conservatives at a gathering in Washington.

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Seeking to diminish questions about his commitment to Christianity, Trump opened his address at the Values Voter Summit by holding up a Bible he said his mother gave him as a child.

“I had to bring it,” Trump said. “It brings back so many memories.”

The summitgoers here are not a natural constituency for the billionaire businessman. Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump, Democrats risk unintended consequences with impeachment arguments Impeachment trial to enter new phase with Trump defense Jordan says he thinks trial will be over by next week MORE (R-Texas) and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, two candidates with unquestioned evangelical bona fides, topped last year’s straw poll.

But Trump on Friday made a clear play for the Christian conservatives who will make up a majority of Iowa caucusgoers in February.

“Freedom of religion is so important,” Trump said, adding that when he’s elected president, Iran will release the Christian U.S. dissidents imprisoned there before he even takes office.

Trump also bemoaned the culture of political correctness he said is responsible for the shift away from department stores using “Merry Christmas” in their ads. He said that if elected president, the stores would no longer use the phrase “Happy Holidays.”

Trump has faced questions about how often he attends church. He has been criticized for saying he has never asked God for forgiveness and has been mocked by some of his rivals for deflecting a question meant to test his knowledge of the Bible, saying he wouldn’t reveal his favorite verse because it’s too personal.

Still, Trump leads the GOP field among evangelical conservatives, though he received a mixed reception at the summit on Friday.

The entire room stood upon Trump’s entrance, but only about half were cheering; the other half were snapping photos of the reality TV star.

Later, some in the crowd booed Trump for criticizing Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFormer senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses 'The worst news': Political world mourns loss of Kobe Bryant Des Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee MORE (R-Fla.), who had received a warm reception earlier in the day.

“This clown Marco Rubio,” Trump said, provoking scattered shouts of dissent from the crowd.

But Trump soldiered on, blasting Rubio for supporting immigration reform and missing votes.

As he’s been able to do consistently on the campaign trail, Trump got the crowd back in his corner using humor, biting commentary and unwavering confidence that he could turn the country around.

Trump blasted Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerA time for war, a time for peace — and always a time to defend America Esper's chief of staff to depart at end of January Soleimani killing deepens distrust between Trump, Democrats MORE (R-Ohio), who only hours earlier had announced he would resign from Congress.

He said BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerA time for war, a time for peace — and always a time to defend America Esper's chief of staff to depart at end of January Soleimani killing deepens distrust between Trump, Democrats MORE was not a conservative and didn’t fight for the principles of conservatism as Speaker. He called Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill “babies” for not sticking to their guns on critical issues.

“We want to see the job being done properly. We want people that are going to get it done,” Trump said. “I don’t understand these guys. They get elected and are full of vigor — they come down to these magnificent vaulted ceilings in Washington ... and become different people.”

Trump hewed closely to his standard stump speech, saying he’d build a military “so strong and so powerful that nobody will ever mess with us," mocking Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryDemocratic debates are magnet for lobbyists The Memo: Sanders-Warren battle could reshape Democratic primary Bring on the brokered convention MORE for breaking his leg in a bicycle accident and boasting about his polling numbers.

Trump blasted the media for writing that the race has tightened, saying the press is eager to advance the narrative that he’s on the decline.

“I’m killing everybody,” Trump said, holding up his Bible again. “This is key.”