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The culture war is back

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One unintended consequence of the improving economy: The culture war is back.

Last night, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum proved that social issues can still pack a punch.

Dave Martin

AP

Cheryl Ciamarra holds up a plastic figure of a fetus during an anti- abortion rally in Montgomery, Ala., last March.

For months, the Republican presidential candidates have hammered away on the economy — and only the economy — as they crisscrossed the campaign trail. But over the past few days, longtime social issues -- contraception, abortion and gay marriage -- have taken the stage in the campaign.

First, Planned Parenthood supporters helped force the resignation of Susan B. Komen Foundation executive Karen Handel after the breast cancer organization cut grants to the family planning group.

Then Catholic bishops began sparring with the White House over a new mandate that all employers cover birth control for women, with very narrow exemptions for Catholic-run institutions.

And on Monday, a federal appeals court in California struck down the state’s gay marriage ban, prompting outrage from the GOP candidates.

All of that is good news for Santorum, a Catholic known for his strident opposition to abortion and homosexuality. His focus on courting religious conservative leaders in Colorado and the large rural evangelical populations in Minnesota and Missouri clearly paid off on Tuesday.

While Santorum is downplaying the role the contraception dispute played in his three-state victory, he attacked President Obama’s mandate repeatedly in the days leading up to the contests. And he didn’t just go after Obama. He also hit at Mitt Romney, who supported the distribution of emergency contraception to rape victims when he was governor of Massachusetts.

Romney, who normally avoids controversial religious issues on the campaign trail, starting following suit, on Monday calling the administration’s contraception mandate “a violation of conscience.”

The White House, meanwhile, sees an opportunity to expand the debate over abortion to include contraception. While the former is still divisive, the latter is broadly popular. The more Republican candidates talk about regulating birth control, this argument goes, the better Obama will fare with key independent voters this fall.

Some, however, argue that Catholic voters will turn on Obama, seeing him as hostile to religious belief, even if they personally support contraception use.

How long this spike in passion over social issues will last is unclear. There were no exit polls from Tuesday night, but in other states the economy is consistently the voters’ top concern.

Still, the longer this wave goes on, the more it hurts Romney, who has supported abortion rights in the past.. He has struggled among evangelicals and voters who oppose abortion in all circumstances

And whether or not the White House is right about the contraception debate, a weakened Romney is good for Obama.

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