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“Values” voters fade as factor in U.S. campaign

WASHINGTON – Even before U.S. Rep. Mark Foley cybersex scandal, Republicans fighting to keep control of Congress were struggling to hold on to “values voters” who usually are energized by issues like gay marriage and abortion.

While such issues motivated the Republicans’ social-conservative base in the past, they are overshadowed in this year’s congressional election campaign by concerns about the Iraq war, the economy and national security, according to opinion polls and political strategists.

“Poverty, the wealth gap, health care — people can’t afford Medicare. Something’s got to be done about that,” Sue Harrell, a school teacher in Monroe City, Indiana, said recently.

She said “Christian values” were important in previous votes but her top issues now are education and the prevalence of methamphetamine abuse and poverty in Knox County, Indiana.

Such talk has Republicans nervous and Democrats scenting opportunities to recapture the House of Representatives after 12 years in the minority, as well as reduce the Republican advantage in the Senate.

An ABC-Washington Post poll released last week found that 23 percent of Americans surveyed cited Iraq or the war on terrorism as their top concerns in the November 7 elections. Another 23 percent cited the economy. Democrats held the advantage in dealing with all three issues.

Just 2 percent of those surveyed cited either abortion or same-sex marriage as a top concern.

The scandal that began last month over former Florida Republican Rep. Foley’s tawdry computer messages to teenage congressional assistants has only served to further dampen Republican enthusiasm.


“The social conservatives are ticked off by Foley,” said Democratic pollster Doug Schoen. “The economic conservatives are ticked off by spending. And those who are concerned about foreign policy are ticked off by an America that is less safe and secure because of the war in Iraq. There’s no real room for people to vote on social ‘values’ issues.”

Democrats, in contrast, are highly motivated to vote, said American University political scientist Candice Nelson.

Support for Democrats by white evangelical Protestants, a core group of the so-called values voters, also has risen this year from 2004, the ABC/Washington Post poll showed.

Since his re-election in 2004, President Bush has catered to social-conservative priorities by appointing two conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court and by issuing his first veto against a bill that would have expanded federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

But few individual races this year are turning on such issues.

In Pennsylvania’s Senate race, for instance, Democrats sidestepped an abortion fight by running anti-abortion Catholic Bob Casey against Sen. Rick Santorum (news, bio, voting record), the anti-abortion Catholic Republican incumbent. Santorum is trailing in polls.

Similarly, several House races in conservative regions such as Harrell’s Indiana district feature anti-abortion Democrats challenging Republican incumbents.

In Virginia, however, Republican Sen. George Allen (news, bio, voting record)’s unexpectedly tight re-election bid could get a boost from a ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage. A Washington Post poll released on Tuesday found that a fragile majority of state voters backed the ban.

More broadly, voters in states with such measures are paying less attention than in 2004, a Pew Research poll last week found.

Republicans have sought to highlight the prospect of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record), a liberal Californian, becoming speaker of the House — the most powerful job in the House — should Democrats win.

Socially conservative voters “are no longer in love with the Republican majority but it is their distaste and fear of a Democratic majority that may drive them to vote,” said Republican strategist Neil Newhouse.

Conservative leader Gary Bauer says a last-minute surge among values voters remains a strong possibility. Otherwise, “they really may wake up the next morning and find (liberal Democrat) Ted Kennedy in a leadership position in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi running the House,” he said.