It's no longer just the economy, stupid.
Supplanted in recent election cycles by economic concerns, social issues such as gay marriage, abortion and religious freedom have elbowed their way back into the political debate in the 2012 presidential race.
From President Obama's decision to mandate contraception coverage and a fight over funding for Planned Parenthood to a California court decision this week in support of same-sex marriage, "values voter" issues are suddenly back in the spotlight.
The hot-button issues have provided Republican candidates new opportunities to criticize the Obama administration — and one another — as they look to curry favor with a powerful voting bloc during a slow part of the nomination calendar.
"Social issues continue to play a major role in the GOP nominating process," said Darrell M. West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "Even in a year where the economy is the top issue, social and cultural issues may decide the GOP nominee."
John Feehery, a GOP strategist, said the candidates are making a play for a key voting bloc.
"The Catholic vote is the swing vote, especially the Catholic women vote," Mr. Feehery said, alluding to the fact that Catholics make up more than a quarter of the national electorate and, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, increasingly identify themselves as Republican.
The GOP candidates pounced on the Obama administration's decision against exempting Catholic institutions that want out of a mandate in the new health care law requiring them to carry insurance plans that cover contraceptives for women without a co-pay.
GOP front-runner Mitt Romney tried — and apparently failed — to move values voters in his direction in the run-up to Tuesday's Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri nominating contests by labeling the administration's mandate as an assault on religious freedom. Like his rivals, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum, the former Massachusetts governor railed against the federal appeals court ruling Tuesday that California's 2008 voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.
Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum, both Catholics, used the contraception controversy to gang up on Mr. Romney, a Mormon. Both candidates, as well as the Obama administration, contend Mr. Romney embraced a similar birth-control policy as governor of Massachusetts — a charge that independent fact-checkers have said is false.
"There's been a lot of talk about the Obama administration's attack on the Catholic Church," Mr. Gingrich said. "Well, the fact is, Gov. Romney insisted that Catholic hospitals give out abortion pills, against their religious beliefs, when he was governor."
During the daily press briefing Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney picked up the same line of attack, saying it is ironic that Mr. Romney is criticizing the president for "pursuing a policy that's virtually identical to the one that was in place when he was governor of Massachusetts."
Mr. Romney responded later in the day, saying "that provision was put in Massachusetts before I was governor, and then when I was governor I tried to have it removed in our health care plan."
Mr. Santorum, who won all three of Tuesday's contests, has portrayed Mr. Romney as a political opportunist, using Mr. Romney's own words against him.
"He believed 'In his heart of hearts' that receiving these contraceptives — free of charge — trumped employees' religious consciences," Mr. Santorum said in an Op-Ed for the Washington-based website Politico. "Now, a few years later and running for president, his heart is strategically aligned with religious voters opposing this federal mandate."
Mr. Romney pushed back Wednesday, vowing to eliminate the rule that "compels religious institutions to violate the tenets of their own faith."
"We expect these attacks from President Obama and his liberal friends. But from Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, it's a clear indication of desperation from their campaigns," said Ryan Williams, Romney spokesman.
In many ways, social issues never completely faded away. The candidates have argued that Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion, should be overturned and have argued in favor of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Aside from Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the fourth candidate in the race, the candidates have fawned over the idea of appointing judges to the bench that are cast in the same mold as Supreme Court Justices Samuel Anthony Alito Jr., Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
Religious leaders have struggled to coalesce around a single alternative to Mr. Romney, whose commitment to pro-life issues and traditional marriage have been long doubted by social and religious conservatives — including a small slice of whom are simply unwilling to vote for a Mormon.
But Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a leading anti-abortion political action committee, predicted that Mr. Santorum's stunning sweep of one primary and two caucuses Tuesday would shake up the 2012 campaign.
"Santorum has the upper hand right now" among social conservatives, she said. "Social-issue voters really are the motor for campaigns. They will stay up all night, be on the phones all day, and they don't give up."
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