By PHILIP ELLIOTT
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Mitt Romney is forced to defend his opposition to same-sex marriage. Newt Gingrich endorses a pledge to be faithful to his wife. Rick Perry runs an ad noting he's against gays serving openly in the military, and abortion may take center stage Wednesday.
Three weeks before Iowa's leadoff caucuses, cultural issues that have been virtually dormant in this Republican presidential campaign are bursting to the forefront as social conservatives — who make up the core of GOP primary voters and haven't rallied behind any one contender — search for a candidate who shares their views.
"Everyone knows what Iowans want to hear and they will be willing to say those things," said the Rev. Brad Cranston of Burlington, who is backing Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. "But I think it's important that we examine their records."
Almost daily now, GOP front-runners Gingrich and Romney are answering for records and backgrounds that are flawed in the eyes of these voters. And Republicans rivals looking to revive their struggling campaigns — like Perry — are turning ever more to topics that resonate strongly with this powerful segment of their party's primary electorate in hopes of becoming their preferred candidate.
"There's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school," Perry, the Texas governor, says in a TV ad blanketing Iowa ahead of the state's Jan. 3 caucuses.
In a column published Tuesday, Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop, assailed Perry for using gay and lesbian soldiers as "as political cannon fodder for his campaign" in "an attempt to garner conservative Christian votes."
Abortion opposition will be the issue of the day Wednesday, when Gingrich, Bachmann, Perry and Rick Santorum attend a screening of Mike Huckabee's anti-abortion documentary.
Cultural issues like those — typically a driving force in a GOP primary — largely have taken a back seat to the economy this year, among even the most vocal social conservatives. Many have spent the better part of the year that while they want a candidate who firmly shares their beliefs, it's most important that they find someone who can fix the economy — and defeat President Barack Obama.
A recent New York Times/ CBS News poll found that among evangelicals in Iowa, 55 percent said a candidate's positions on economic issues were most important to them. Only 25 percent said social issues were their top priority. It was even more lopsided among all likely caucus-goers: 71 percent said the economy was issue one and 14 percent cited social concerns.
Today, the two Republicans at the top of polls in Iowa and elsewhere have baggage that makes cultural conservatives skeptical.
Romney, a Mormon, has a record of equivocating or reversing himself on a series of social issues, including gay and abortion rights, and his faith concerns some evangelical voters. Gingrich has been married three times and has acknowledged infidelity. Both have sought over the years to make amends with these voters but their pasts raise questions about whether they are sincere when they now say they'll uphold issues social conservatives hold dear.
So both are working to allay those concerns — and draw distinctions with each other.
Romney has been trying to make himself more acceptable than Gingrich, the leading alternative, by pressing family values and highlighting his home life and, to a point, his faith. The strategy means more time on the campaign trail for his wife Ann, and five sons.
"I've been married to the same woman for 25 — excuse me, I'll get in trouble — for 42 years. I've been in the same church my entire life," he said in a recent debate, a clip that was turned into a TV ad. "If I'm president of the United States, I will be true to my family, to my faith, and to our country."
It's a pitch at least partly intended to differentiate himself from the thrice-married Gingrich who converted to Catholicism in recent years.
Gingrich, for his part, is trying to insulate himself from questions about — or attacks on — his personal life.
He's hoping Iowa voters remember that he helped bankroll an effort here to repeal judges who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.
And on Monday, he became the latest Republican candidate to endorse the so-called marriage pledge by an Iowa evangelical group, the Family Leader, which opposes gay marriage and abortion.
Bachmann, Perry and Santorum all signed the pledge promising to block same-sex marriage and be faithful to their spouses.
Gingrich, however, wouldn't sign it, prompting some evangelicals to note that he began a relationship with his third wife while married to his second.
"Christians in Iowa — and I understand many of his old U.S. House colleagues as well — desperately want to see a changed man, yet we keep on seeing a glib, wordy cheater. On all fronts, Newt should just be faithful," said the Rev. Albert Calaway, a retired Assemblies of God pastor who heads a 200-church Iowa group called Truth, Values and Leadership.
The issue flared in a debate Saturday when the candidates were asked whether voters should consider marital fidelity.
"If you cheat on your wife, you'll cheat on your business partner. It's a characteristic people look at," Perry said.
Santorum added: "Certainly, it's a factor and it should be a factor when you're electing a leader."
Gingrich responded as he has throughout the campaign, saying: "I think it's a very important issue ... I've made mistakes at times and I've had to go to God for forgiveness."
Some of the pressure on candidates to talk about social issues is coming from special interest groups and voters themselves.
This week, the National Association for Gun Rights started calling New Hampshire gun owners to tell them that "Newt Gingrich has taken strongly anti-gun positions."
Romney also was confronted this week by a gay Vietnam veteran in New Hampshire, where state lawmakers could vote around the time of the Jan. 10 presidential primary on a measure to repeal the law that legalized gay marriage in the state.
At a Manchester diner, Bob Garon, 63, asked if Romney would support efforts to repeal the law that allowed him and husband Bob Lemire to marry.
Ignoring his past positions, Romney responded that he backed the repeal and added: "I believe that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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