Obama sees opening in social-issue split

President Obama loves Iowa.

In 2008, the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus propelled Obama to front-runner status and satisfied lingering questions about his electability.

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In 2012, Iowa could help the president divide and conquer his Republican opponents, staining them — fringe and mainstream candidates alike — with the mark of social conservatism at a time when voters care far more about the economy than gay marriage.

The trap was set last month when Obama ordered the Justice Department to stand down in its defense of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Hot-button social issues are important to Republican Iowa caucus-goers, whom the GOP 2012 crowd is now trying to attract. At a forum on faith Monday night sponsored by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a number of likely GOP presidential candidates were ready to pounce when the issue came up. 

“We have people in Washington, D.C., who say marriage will be defined however we feel like defining it,” former Minnesota GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty said at the forum. “No, it won’t. It should be defined as between a man and a woman.”

The 2012 election, however, is more likely to turn on the economy than on gay marriage. 

When then-President George W. Bush and Karl Rove pushed for gay-marriage referendums to show up on state ballots in 2004, the national unemployment rate was 5.5 percent.

The issue was a welcome distraction to talk of the Iraq war, the Patriot Act or the president’s failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.

But in 2012, social issues could be a distraction for Republicans at a time when voters are worried about more pressing issues like gas prices, home foreclosures and jobs. 

Obama would love for voters to focus on social issues instead of the economy, according to Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University.

“In some ways, this parallels, but is the reverse of, the Bush 2004 reelection strategy, which focused on security issues and social conservatism,” Brown said. “As long as Bush stayed on his issues, his campaign stayed ahead. When the Democrats were able to steer the conversation toward the economic issues … the GOP found it difficult to defend their track record.”

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) might win the Iowa caucuses. He is spending plenty of time there, and GOP caucus-goers are of the same mind as the anti-abortion-rights, anti-gay-marriage conservative firebrand.

But if 2008 is any guide, winning Iowa would only guarantee Santorum a television show, as it did for that year’s winner, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. 

Democrats know this, and they are delighted to watch Santorum and other likely Republican candidates fall all over themselves to lay claim to the role of the social conscience of the GOP.

Because while Republicans are running to the right on social issues in an effort to win support in Iowa, they could be alienating the independent and centrist voters who will decide the general election. Democrats argue it’s a safe bet that exit polls in November 2012 will not show gay marriage or abortion as the defining issue for the electorate.

“You don’t have to be a political scientist to know people are concerned about the economy,” said one top Democratic official. 

Democrats don’t necessarily want to see Santorum win the nomination, and they know such a result is unlikely.

What is likely and welcome in the White House is the effect social-issues candidates will have on the candidates who are in a position to seriously challenge Obama.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney might poll well with voters on economic issues, but what will he say about abortion and marriage issues? How much will he talk about them, and how far right will he have to go to prove his conservative bona fides to a small but powerful group of voters who, in the White House view, are totally misrepresentative of the larger electorate? 

“The challenge for the more formidable Republican candidates is to resist the temptation to shake the ideological rattles that get big applause,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “If they all jump into the social-issue playpen together, then Obama will have an easier time next fall convincing moderate voters that he is the only adult on the ballot.”

Obama and his team have long sensed opportunity in the identity crisis Republicans are facing as their party tries to balance its new Tea Party zeal for fiscal issues and libertarianism with the socially conservative party of six years ago.

A debate over abortion and gay marriage is just what Democrats want to see happening in Iowa for the next nine months.

“Once you stick your head out on moral issues, you’re labeled,” Santorum said Monday.

He’s right. And the White House will gleefully watch Republicans cover themselves in that label while the rest of the voting public wonders why the GOP is talking about abortion instead of the economy.

Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill. Find his column, Obama’s Bid for Reelection, on thehill.com