Iowa GOP Frets About Social Issues Overload

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Two interesting stories in Monday’s Des Moines Register suggest that Republicans are worried about the effect an intense focus on social issues in the run-up to the 2012 Iowa caucuses could have on the party’s national image at a moment when Americans are overwhelmingly concerned about the economy. Iowa’s caucuses are dominated by evangelical conservatives fixated on “values” fights like abortion and gay rights, giving the GOP candidates a strong incentive to out-pander one another on that turf.

For the same reason that House Republicans dropped their insistence on barring federal funding for Planned Parenthood in last month’s budget showdown, however–namely polls showing that economically-stressed voters have little appetite for the culture war right now–GOP leaders fret that the caucuses fight could portray a party obsessed with God, guns and gays–and one not attuned to the economic or fiscal concerns of most Americans. (Iowa has already treated the political world to three candidates’ forums focused on values, including one at which a prominent speaker insisted that “if we get the culture right, the economy will be right eventually.”)

Thus, the Register reports, Republicans are pleased that at least three upcoming forums will focus on fiscal and economic matters:

“I think they’re both important for the party because our base cares about both issues,” said Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross, 2008 Iowa campaign chairman for Mitt Romney. “But if you’re comparing it in terms of the eventual outcomes of the race, I think economic issues are predominating now.”

The first forum will be a June 18 event in Des Moines organized by an anti-deficit group called Strong America Now.

This seems like smart politics–though it may be easier said than done. Advisers to the 2012 GOP candidates remember the 2008 caucuses, in which Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister with a puny war chest but an emphasis on values, beat Mitt Romney and his more economics-oriented message. Recent reporting suggests Iowa’s evangelicals have become even more politically active since 2008, playing a major role in last year’s ouster of three state supreme court judges who supported the unanimous decision legalizing gay marriage in Iowa.

Meanwhile, the Register also reports that one of Iowa’s top social conservatives (and the man who led the judicial coup), Bob Vander Plaats, is in Washington Monday to join a Tea Party event demanding that any Republican support for raising the debt limit has to come with major concessions from Democrats. He’ll speak at the National Press Club on Thursday.