GOP candidates take on social issues

Gay marriage, abortion and God will take center stage in the GOP presidential race this weekend, as the Republican hopefuls converge on the Family Research Council’s Value Voters Summit.

The list of speakers scheduled to address the Washington summit reads like a Who’s Who of the Republican Party and the American right: All the major presidential candidates will be there — save for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — as will House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). Conservative media stars Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin will also make appearances.

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In an election season dominated by the economy and unemployment, the summit offers candidates an opportunity to flaunt their socially conservative bona fides — and to take hard-line stances on wedge issues that could come back to haunt them in a general election.

“These issues are front and center. The social issues are intertwined with the fiscal issues,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told The Hill on Thursday. “People understand the reason we have big, expensive government is because we have neglected and in many ways discouraged family formation, and that core economic foundation, which is the family.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney starts the summit as the front-runner for the GOP nomination but has met with skepticism by conservatives in the past for his previous support for abortion rights and gay rights. He has addressed the summit in past years and won its straw poll in 2007, although he came in third last year.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) speak frequently about their Christian faith and how it influences their conservative views on social issues, and are more at ease in settings such as the Value Voters summit.

Businessman Herman Cain, who is rising quickly among the Republican field, is also positioned as a far-right candidate on social issues, and has been called out by Muslim groups for saying he wouldn’t appoint a Muslim to the Cabinet if elected president. He also made controversial comments about homosexuality during an interview with “The View” this week, saying it is a choice, but that he would be willing to listen to scientific evidence to the contrary.

Huntsman would have had a tough time with the Value Voters crowd due to his more centrist social views and support for civil unions. Perkins said Huntsman, like all the candidates, was invited, but that he declined the invitation.

Perkins’s group, a conservative Christian organization that strongly opposes abortion rights, homosexuality, premarital sex and embryonic stem-cell research, holds the summit every year. It takes on a higher profile in the year before a presidential election, though.

Organizers expect to set a new record in 2011, with almost 3,000 participants. In addition to hearing from A-list conservative figures, attendees will vote in a straw poll for their preferred presidential candidate. The winner will be announced Saturday afternoon.

“It will highlight how many voters there are in this country who view social issues as critical,” said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, who is speaking at the summit. “Given where we are as a country, and the fact there is this continued push to redefine marriage against the will of the people, it’s important we have leadership from the Republican candidates.”

While the candidates will likely emphasize their conservative credentials to appeal to the social conservatives, it could make it much harder for them to inch back to the center if they win the nomination and face a general election, where they will have to win over more centrist voters.

But Perkins said there’s no reason to worry that Values Voters could push candidates too far to the right.

“I think any candidate with a heartbeat can beat President Obama,” he said.

Both the Family Research Council and the American Family Association — another group sponsoring the summit — are considered hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of their stances toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.

“I think it is appalling that major public figures are legitimizing these groups, which regularly lie about the LGBT community, by attending their functions and treating them as serious commentators on the values of their society,” said Mark Potok, who heads the division of SPLC that analyzes hate groups.

SPLC has scheduled a Friday news conference outside the Value Voters Summit to release a report documenting instances wherein the groups have made unsubstantiated claims about gay people.

Perkins said the SPLC news conference reflected an attempt to prevent free discussion of ideas and noted that he doesn’t show up at SPLC events to protest the civil-rights organization’s beliefs.

“Southern Poverty Law Center is obviously desperate to try to shut down public debate,” he said.

Perkins is scheduled to open the three-day event Friday morning before Boehner takes the floor. Perry, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Bachmann will all address the summit Friday.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Romney will speak on Saturday before the weekend comes to a close Sunday morning with a sermon by Perkins.

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