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DOMA Decision Enhances Relevance Of Santorum, Social Issues DOMA Decision Enhances Relevance Of Santorum, Social Issues DOMA Decision Enhances Relevance Of Santorum, Social Issues DOMA Decision Enhances Re...

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Politics

DOMA Decision Enhances Relevance Of Santorum, Social Issues

March 3, 2011
To some extent social issues were already on the Republican radar, thanks largely to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) and his proposed "truce" on cultural disputes. The suggestion, made last summer during an interview with The Weekly Standard, has drawn plenty of criticism from conservative leaders - including Santorum, who has frequently and forcefully condemned the idea. Yet while Daniels' "truce" proposal undeniably has rubbed many conservatives the wrong way, it's telling that the buzz surrounding his potential candidacy has been growing -- not waning -- since his controversial comments. This reflects a growing sentiment within the GOP electorate that candidates should be focused primarily on fiscal, not cultural issues. Indeed, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that nearly two-thirds of GOP primary voters would be "more likely" to vote for a candidate "who says the party should focus more on the economy and the deficit and less on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion." Tellingly, only eight percent indicated they would be "less likely to vote for such a candidate." Such striking numbers help explain how a little-known candidate like Daniels can dismiss social issues yet still be considered a viable contender for the GOP presidential nomination. There are two irrefutable facts working in his favor: economic concerns will dictate the narrative of the 2012 election; and cultural battles have been drowned out by those economic concerns since the recession began. Save for the relatively brief congressional showdown over federal funding of abortions during last year's health care reform battle, major social debates have been conspicuously absent from the national narrative since Obama took office. Inside that vacuum, Daniels' message has begun to win over some of his early critics, who reluctantly have conceded that economic anxieties, not culture wars, will drive voters to the polls in both the primary and general elections next year. While that will likely remain the case heading into 2012, Obama's DOMA decision certainly puts a dent in Daniels' "truce" proposal, which is far more likely to resonate with GOP voters at a time when social disputes are entirely absent from the nightly news. Conversely, Santorum's message -- that culture battles never lose their relevance -- gains greater authority when he can tell voters, "Traditional marriage is under attack from the White House," while citing a recent and prominent example like DOMA. Daniels' message on the economy and fiscal discipline was gaining steam, as were his presidential prospects. But Obama's decision on DOMA unexpectedly reawakens the hibernating giant of GOP politics: culture wars. And nowhere will this sudden awakening be more important -- or manifest itself more readily -- than in Iowa. With the nation's highest percentage of evangelical Christian voters, social issues play a large role in Iowa Republican politics, both because of its first-in-the-nation caucus and its status as one of America's most socially conservative states. But to Iowans, gay marriage isn't just another social issue; it's the social issue. After the state Supreme Court in 2009 ruled to legalize same-sex marriage in a stunning unanimous decision, conservative activists spent the next 18 months working to oust three of the justices, which they accomplished in November. Enter Santorum, who has been piling his eggs in the Hawkeye State basket for months. Last fall, when other would-be presidential candidates were drifting through Iowa like aimless tumbleweeds, Santorum, in a shrewd yet little-noticed move boarded a "Judge Bus" in Des Moines that in three days traversed 45 counties campaigning against those three justices, granting Santorum exposure to the influential grassroots groups whose support any candidate would kill for. Some four months after boarding that bus, Santorum was back in Iowa when news broke of Obama's DOMA decision. And immediately, realizing last year's investment had paid off, Santorum pounced: "Of the potential Republican candidates, I was the only one who came into the state, jumped on the Judge Bus," he told the audience of a widely-seen Iowa television show. "No other Republican potential nominee or candidate came to do the same." Obama's move on DOMA should help Santorum, albeit unintentionally. Keep in mind: the White House has had 2012 on its mind for some time now. Obama sidelined (or so he thought) a potential adversary when he tapped former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) to become his Ambassador to China at the beginning of his tenure. Moreover, Obama and his team have recently made comparisons between their federal health reform law and the one enacted in Massachusetts by former Gov. Mitt Romney (R) - a move reminding many conservatives why they're unenthusiastic about Romney's candidacy. It's unlikely that Obama is actively trying to shape the GOP field, but it's reasonable to conclude that he would prefer to face a very conservative Republican whose primary focus is social issues -- like Santorum, rather than someone more moderate running on a message of economic competence like Romney, Daniels or Huntsman. Santorum was a long-shot before Obama's DOMA decision, and he remains one today. But the potential ramifications reach far beyond his candidacy. Until last week, the GOP primary contest seemed destined to hinge on little more than competing visions for enhancing the nation's economic recovery. Now the ideological terrain has shifted somewhat, and if Santorum is able to effectively alter the primary narrative by helping social issues regain their relevance in the nominating process, observers will remember Obama's DOMA decision as the catalyst.
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