PHOENIX, Ariz. – Elections are usually about the big things.
So should it be of concern to Republicans that the GOP presidential primary has taken a detour into social issues at a time when the economy is still the top issue on Americans’ minds?
Some Republicans who attended Mitt Romney’s speech here to the Associated Builders and Contractors national meeting Thursday morning said undoubtedly yes.
“I’m concerned that the Republicans have a real chance to hurt themselves through the primary process,” said Mark Wylie, a 61-year-old Winter Springs, Fla., resident who is the president of the Associated Builders and Contractors’ Central Florida Chapter.
Wylie, who voted for Romney in last month’s Florida primary, said that he was frustrated that “the attention to small details and trying to decide who’s a better candidate on this detail or that detail is fueling this unending debate on a variety of minor issues.”
“The issue that’s going to determine this election is going to be the economy,” he said. “And unless somebody is able to provide a clear and distinct difference between what the current administration’s going to be, they’re going to get lost. The primaries are getting mired in the details of things that really don’t matter to the broad range of the American people.”
Romney received a raucous reception Thursday morning here at the sprawling Biltmore Hotel from the assembled construction trade leaders, many of whom cited his business credentials and his position on union and labor issues as main reasons for their support.
And it was clear that – for all the enthusiasm he has generated when it comes to social issues -- former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, Romney’s main rival for the GOP nod, faces skepticism from GOP primary voters when it comes to economic issues, particularly on his record on union issues.
“You know, I think I like Rick Santorum,” said Bill Anderson, 47, the president of the organization’s Georgia chapter. “He seems like a good quality individual, but I will say that on ABC’s issues and his past voting record in the Senate, it really conflicts with a lot of our core issues and philosophy, a variety of different ones.”
“It would make it very difficult to consider him,” added Anderson, who is leaning toward Romney ahead of the Peach State’s Super Tuesday primary.
It’s unclear whether the course of the primary will change heading into next week’s races. Wednesday’s debate – at which the word “jobs” was mentioned by the candidates only 10 times over the course of two hours – would seem to suggest that economic issues will continue to take a backseat.
If so, Wylie said, the party could wind up suffering in the fall.
“The vast majority of people are going to be voting on jobs and the economic strength of this country, and it’s really going to be a referendum on the current administration,” he said. “The second show is going to be the opponent. The first show is going to be, ‘Are we satisfied with where we are today, and are we satisfied with where things are going under the current guy?’”
So what can be done in the meantime?
“It’s free speech, and free press, and you guys on the press side get to ask all the questions you want, and they get the chance to answer all the questions they want,” he said. “If they want to start debating whether they like Labradors or Pekinese – and you all will put that on the front page of the paper – that’s what they’re going to debate. And unfortunately, it detracts from the core issue of the campaign, which is fixing the economy.”