NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- Donald Trump recently showed up at a gathering of Iowa conservative Christian voters with a copy of the Bible in hand.
"See, I'm better than you thought," he said. Then came a black-and-white photograph from his confirmation to further prove his Christian cred.
"Nobody believes this," he said to laughs. "What went wrong?"
As the billionaire businessman and Republican front-runner candidate for the U.S. presidency tries to maintain his lead in early polls with rivals quickly gaining ground, Trump is increasingly courting a wing of the Republican Party that might seem antithetical to his brand: evangelical Christians.
After initially declining the invitation, Trump will be speaking Friday in front of an expected 2,000 social conservative leaders at the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit in Washington. He joins a speaking program that includes Republican rivals with long records of dedication to religious causes -- among them, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist pastor, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
"I love them. They love me," Trump, a Presbyterian, said of evangelicals last month in Greenville, South Carolina. "I love the Evangelicals, and it's really shown in the polls."
In many ways, Trump's brand as the bombastic, thrice-married billionaire showman would seem an ill-fit among religious conservatives. He once held a reputation as a womanizing playboy, previously supported abortion rights, and appears to spend more time calling into Sunday morning talk shows than attending church.
Trump likes to boast about the Bible being his favorite book, but has refused to quote his favorite biblical verse when asked to say what it was. He raised eyebrows in June when he said that he has never asked God for forgiveness and described Communion as "when I drink my little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and have my little cracker."
Some evangelical leaders are skeptical.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Trump's candidacy is fundamentally opposed to Christian values.
"When one looks at the very serious moral character questions, from Trump's involvement in the casino gambling industry all the way through to his attitude toward women, Donald Trump is the embodiment of everything that evangelical Christians have been standing against in American culture," he said.
Social conservatives are eager to have "a conversation" with Trump about his previous support for abortion rights, among other positions most conservatives strongly oppose, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, which is hosting the Value Voters Summit.
"He's had some positions in the past which obviously raise questions that he's going to have to have a conversation about at some point," Perkins said. "But the intrigue of Donald Trump is that he is unconstrained by the so-called forces of political correctness."
On Monday he's set to host a group of evangelical pastors and bishops from across the country for a private meeting and prayer session at Trump Tower in New York.
Several attendees, including Pastor Lionel Traylor of Jackson, Mississippi, said evangelical voters are particularly drawn to Trump's direct style and his strong defense of Christians at a time "when Christianity is under attack." Trump has frequently made reference to attacks on Christians abroad and said that he will be a champion for religious liberty.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Colvin on Twitter at @colvinj.