Values Voters summit kicks off in values-light season

at 10:44 AM ET, 10/07/2011

We’ll be liveblogging speeches from Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum from the Values Voters summit today — beginning with Santorum at 11:40 —, so stay tuned.

This weeked, social conservatives are gathering in Washington, D.C. for the Values Voters summit, a big three-day confab organized by the Family Research Council. But the high-profile event comes during a campaign in which social issues have been all but ignored.
Audience members at the 2010 Values Voters summit. (Melina Mara - THE WASHINGTON POST)

Unsurprisingly, with the economy sinking, Republican candidates this year have focused overwhelmingly on jobs.

Social issues have not turned into wedges between the candidates as is typical in GOP primaries. Earlier this year, most candidates refused to sign an influential Iowa conservative group’s controversial gay marriage pledge. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has not taken heat for his past support of abortion rights; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has received little criticism for his multiple divorces.

Most Republicans are girding for a long primary battle between Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Iowa social conservatives, who Romney has all but ignored, are unlikely to have much effect on that dynamic.

And those religious voters, while likely wary of Romney, may not be fully satisfied with Perry either. While Perry held a high-profile Christian event just weeks before entering the race, he has largely avoided social issues since his announcement. His team has argued that only attacks related to jobs and the economy will resonate with voters.

He’s also the only frontrunner to run afoul of social conservatives in a major way, with his decision to make the HPV vaccine mandatory for young women in Texas. Even that debate was framed as an issue of individual health-care rights and government corruption, not moral values. But Perry will likely try to make up some ground with social conservatives when he speaks today.

The candidate most tied to social conservatives, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, has never really gotten much traction. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), an evangelical with appeal to the movement, has collapsed in recent weeks. She gave a speech on abortion rights earlier this week; all the questions were about her staff depatures.

While former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain is a staunch social conservative and has been rising in polls, he too largely avoids social issues on the trail. Still, Cain’s speech today could shift that balance a little, and it will likely be one of the more closely-watched events of the weekend.

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