CPAC buzzes about contraception clash

Social issues ruled the day at the Conservative Political Action Conference, as President Obama’s fight with the Catholic Church over contraception dominated the day’s discussion.

Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister and the former governor of Arkansas, set the tone by declaring that "Thanks to President Obama, we are all Catholics now.”

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Attendees at the event buzzed about the issue. Numerous overheard conversations from audience members focused on the matter, a major change from just months ago, when at the Faith & Freedom Conference, an event supposedly focused more on social issues, many of the candidates and most in the crowd focused on economic matters.

The recent court ruling overturning California’s gay marriage ban and signs that the economy is improving, along with the ongoing controversy on contraception, have led to this shift.

Obama announced a change to his original policy Friday afternoon, calling the new rule "a sensible approach" in which employees who work for religious organizations that object to the use of birth control would be able to obtain contraception from the employer's insurer.

Despite his retreat on the issue, all the presidential contenders criticized him, particularly as the original rule required religious-affiliated organizations to include contraception coverage in their healthcare plans.

Rick Santorum called it "coercion."

“We've seen the president of the United States not only tell you what insurance coverage you should have, how much you’re going to pay, how much you’re going to be fined if you don’t, but now he's telling the Catholic Church that they are forced to pay for things that are against their basic tenets and teachings, against their First Amendment right,” he said, framing the issue not just as a religious one but one of personal freedom.

“This is the kind of coercion that we expect,” Santorum added. “It’s not about contraception. It's about economic liberty. It's about freedom of speech. It's about government coercion. It's about government control of your lives and it's got to stop!”

The audience roared to its feet — the standing ovation lasted a full 30 seconds.

Later in the day, Mitt Romney got in on the action, seeking to shore up his social conservative bona fides, which have been questioned in the past.

He said as Massachusetts governor he’d fought to allow the Catholic Church “to serve the community in ways that were consistent with their conscience” through adoption programs and, promised if elected president, he would “reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks religious liberty.”

Newt Gingrich touched on the issue as well. “I frankly don't care what deal [Obama] will try to cut,” he said. "If he is reelected he will wage war on the Catholic Church the morning after he is reelected. We cannot trust him, we know who he really is and we should make sure the country knows who he really is.”

It is unclear how long the resurgence of social issues will last — the economy is still the foremost concern for most voters, according to polls, and the president's announcement on Friday could help it fade quickly. But for the time being, at least in conservative circles, the issue has great salience.