Is focus on social issues a distraction, or the path to victory for Republicans in 2012?

Though many opinion polls showed that the public, even American Catholics, support President Obama's compromise re the mandate that Catholic-run institutions provide contraception to their employees, there are some Republicans who think this and other cultural issues are in fact the ticket to winning this fall's election.

In Saturday's Wall Street Journal, there was a featured article on Jeffrey Bell, the author of an upcoming book called The Case for Polarized Politics, where he argues that socially conservative politics favors Republicans, and that approach can be the winning formula for Republicans again this fall.

The WSJ's James Taranto writes:

Even without immediate gains among minority voters, Mr. Bell sees social issues as the path to a GOP majority in 2012. They account for the George W. Bush-era red-blue divide, which Mr. Bell says endures—and, he adds, red has the advantage: "There was one state in 2000 that Bush carried that I would say was socially left of center, and that was New Hampshire," the only state that flipped to John Kerry four years later. "By 2004, every state—all 31 states that Bush carried—were socially conservative states." Those states now have 292 electoral votes, with 270 sufficient for a majority.

By contrast, not all the Kerry states are socially liberal. "The swing vote in the Midwest is socially conservative and less conservative economically," Mr. Bell says, so that "social conservatism is more likely to be helpful than economic conservatism."

Among states that last voted Republican in 1988 or earlier, he classifies two, Michigan and Pennsylvania, as socially conservative, and two more, Minnesota and Wisconsin, as "mildly" so. That adds up to 35 states, with 348 electoral votes, in which social conservatism is an advantage. A socially liberal Republican nominee might win more votes in California and New York—places where the GOP has declined as the country has become more polarized—but his prospects of carrying either would still be minuscule.

Is Bell right? The fact is, that of the four Republicans who are still running for president, the ascendant one is Rick Santorum, best-known for his strong moral stances against gays, abortion, contraception and seemingly anything having to do with sexuality.

On CBS's Face The Nation, Santorum weighed with a new controversial opinion, saying that he believes specific types of pre-natal testing lead to a greater number of abortions.

"A lot of pre-natal tests are done to identify deformities in utero and the customary procedure is to encourage abortions," he said. "We know that 90 percent of Downs syndrome children in America are aborted, so to suggest, where does that come from?"

He later said on the program that "Pre-natal testing . . . does in fact result more often than not in this country in abortion."

When asked by host Bob Schieffer, Santorum would not say that he wanted the practice banned, but said government should not provide that type of testing free of charge. "There are all sorts of pre-natal testing which should be provided free . . .But not all pre-natal testing."

But there is one Republican presidential candidate willing to say the emphasis on social issues is madness. Not for the first time, that outlier is Ron Paul, who said on CNN's State of the Union that, like Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan, he too was more focused on debt.

On NBC's Meet The Press, Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan and Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen were ostensibly invited to be on David Gregory's weekly program to discuss jobs and the economy.

Except Gregory spent the first eight minutes of the program discussing contraception and same-sex marriage, compelling Ryan to say, "Actually I came on to talk about the debt crisis that we have and the budget. I think that's really the driving issue of this election."

But after Ryan answered his question, the man George W. Bush nicknamed "Stretch" defended himself, saying, "There's a presidential campaign and you're a Republican leader in the Congress and the reality is that these social issues are occupying a lot of bandwidth with the Republican primary voters. So you may want to talk about other issues, the truth is some of the standard-bearers of your party are also talking about these issues and that's why I wanted to get your views on them."

Later on CNN's State of the Union, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels called the escalating debt "the largest non-military danger we've ever faced," and said that he believed the economy and the debt should have priority.

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