Even Conservative Analysts Believe GOP Candidates "Veering Too Far Right"
WASHINGTON — Amid the heated primary fight, conservative analysts are warning Republican presidential contenders against pegging campaigns to social and religious issues that could cost the party at the November polls.
At a time when many voters thought the 2012 campaign would be a referendum on President Barack Obama's handling of the economy, Republicans have seized on issues like abortion, birth control and gay marriage to mount strident attacks against his administration.
Even some conservatives worry the focus on these "values issues" could alienate moderate and independent voters, whose backing is central to wresting the White House from Obama in the November 6 election.
"It's hard for me to see, at least at this point, social issues trumping the economy," said Karlyn Bowman, from the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
"At least in this election, the economy I would say is the number one, two, three, four and five issue in American politics," Bowman told AFP.
Henry Olsen, another conservative political analyst at AEI, agreed that Democrats were set to benefit if social issues become the defining Republican themes of their election plan.
"Taken as a whole, the Democrats would rather fight this campaign on social issues rather than economic issues," he said. "To the extent that all of the social issues combined become a defining issue, that is bad for the Republicans."
The focus on morals and values reached a crescendo ahead of key Republican nominating contests next Tuesday in Michigan and Arizona, where religion and values-tinged themes have played well with conservative voters.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who in November suggested that poor inner-city kids should be employed as school janitors to learn the value of hard work, this month declared at a conservative forum that Obama wanted to "wage war on the Catholic church."
Meanwhile Mitt Romney, a Mormon former Massachusetts governor who has generally tempered his remarks on religion, accused the president at a debate this week in Arizona of undermining "religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance."
Romney's closest rival, former US senator Rick Santorum, has been most aggressive in his rhetoric on social and religious themes. Last week he accused Obama of promoting a "phony theology" with his environmental policies.
A late Thursday poll by Rasmussen Reports showed Romney with 40 percent support among Republicans in Michigan, his home state, which the millionaire entrepreneur considers a must-win. Santorum was within striking distance with 34 percent support.
A series of polls showed Romney well ahead of Santorum in Arizona.
Santorum -- a fierce opponent of birth control and abortion who in January was endorsed by a coalition of powerful evangelical Christian leaders -- has however vaulted to the top of many surveys following victories this month in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.
A devout Catholic who educated his seven children at home, Santorum also raised eyebrows last week when he referred to public schools as "factories" and called government support for American schools "an anachronism."
Perhaps most controversial were comments Santorum made in 2008 that emerged this week, in which he tells an audience at a Catholic university that "Satan has his sights on the United States of America."
Republican primary campaigns have traditionally seen presidential hopefuls shift to the right as they compete for support from the conservative party faithful who vote in such contests.
But it's a delicate balancing act, since the winner must then be able to move to the political center and reach a broader population in the general election.
"You appeal to the narrow base, and they'll applaud the daylights out of what you're saying," said Pat Robertson, a staunch Christian evangelical who ran for president himself in the 1980s.
"Then you hit the general election and they say, 'No way!" and the Democrat will play these statements to the hilt," Robertson said on his "700 Club" television program.
Other Republican operatives have been warning for weeks that the focus on contentious social themes is likely to backfire.
"You don't want these candidates moving so right in the Republican primary that it becomes impossible for them to win the general election," said Karl Rove, who masterminded the successful campaigns of former Republican president George W. Bush.