Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) says his state will "correct" the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, saying the law "does not give anyone a license deny services to gay and lesbian couples." (Reuters)

The national debate over an Indiana religious-liberties law seen as anti-gay has drawn the entire field of Republican presidential contenders into the divisive culture wars, which badly damaged Mitt Romney in 2012 and which GOP leaders eagerly sought to avoid in the 2016 race.

Most top Republican presidential hopefuls this week have moved in lock step, and without pause, to support Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) and his Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has prompted protests and national calls for boycotts by major corporations.

In Arkansas on Tuesday, Republican legislators approved a similar measure that Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) is expected to sign. The action prompted the chief executive of Arkansas-based Wal-Mart to ask Hutchinson to veto the bill, saying that it “does not reflect the values we uphold.”

The agreement among the likely GOP candidates illustrates the enduring power of social conservatives in early-voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina, which will help determine who emerges as the party’s nominee next year.

But the position puts the Republican field out of step with a growing national consensus on gay rights, handing Hillary Rodham Clinton and other Democrats a way to portray Republicans as intolerant and insensitive. Some Republicans also fear that Indiana is only the first in a series of brush fires that could engulf the party as it struggles to adapt to the nation’s rapidly changing demographics and social mores.

All eyes are on Indiana after Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed a controversial religious freedom bill into law. The Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey explains what's in the law and why there's so much opposition to it. (Pamela Kirkland/The Washington Post)

At a news conference Tuesday, Pence — a potential long-shot presidential candidate himself — strongly defended the Indiana statute, which grants individuals and businesses legal grounds to defend themselves against claims of discrimination. But he also said the state would “fix” the law to make clear that it does not give license to businesses to deny services to anyone.

Pence insisted that it was never the law’s intent to allow discrimination — “I abhor discrimination,” he said repeatedly — although he acknowledged that negative perceptions have taken a rapid toll on Indiana’s reputation and economic development.

After Pence signed the law Thursday, corporate executives nationwide — as well as the White House and likely Democratic presidential candidates Clinton and Martin O’Malley — issued sharp condemnations.

But former Florida governor Jeb Bush and other GOP presidential hopefuls did not waver in their support of Pence and what they consider a necessary state measure to safeguard religious liberty. The positions are in keeping with the views of social conservatives, who enjoy an outsize influence in the Republican presidential nominating contest.

“This is another case where the Iowa caucus beckons,” veteran GOP strategist John Weaver said. “Politically, it’s a difficult issue for a general election. After watching the Romney campaign in 2012, a lot of people said, ‘Do no harm to your general-election chances while trying to win the nomination.’ Having said that, you have to win the nomination first.”

As Steve Deace, a conservative talk-radio host in Iowa, put it: “This is the first litmus test of the race. Everyone in the party is watching to see how the candidates respond. For evangelicals, this is the fundamental front of culture issues.”

General-election concerns

Across the GOP firmament Tuesday, there was some worry that Democrats could revive the moment in next year’s general-election campaign to assail the eventual Republican nominee as an opponent of gay rights.

“Could this emerge as an ad? Yes,” GOP pollster David Winston said. “Could it be a decisive issue in people’s minds? It’s not clear at this point.”

Vin Weber, a former congressman and Bush ally, said he is concerned about the general-election implications and whether the Indiana debate damages the Republican brand with moderate and independent voters. “Everyone likes Mike Pence, and they’re concerned about the primary politics of the marriage issue, but I’m a little worried they’re not thinking of the broader perceptions of the party,” he said.

But other Republican strategists argued that the Indiana imbroglio could have the opposite effect. They suggested that the harsh reaction to the law has become a rallying cry for the tens of millions of evangelical voters. On his show Tuesday, talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh called the media blowback an example of how “religious people in this country are being ganged up on.”

Longtime GOP consultant David Carney said: “It’s going to potentially wake up a sleeping giant. . . . It’s crazy for people in our party to surrender or wet their pants every time there’s something controversial on the front page of The Washington Post or Out magazine or the New York Times.”

Regardless of whether they support or oppose the Indiana law, the Republican contenders must signal compassion to avoid damaging the party’s brand, said pollster Whit Ayres, an adviser to likely presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“More than anything else, it’s a tone and an attitude of inclusion and acceptance that Ronald Reagan articulated beautifully and that too few Republicans have articulated effectively of late,” Ayres told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

Bush defended the Indiana law in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt on Monday, but he has not made social issues part of his core campaign message. At some moments, he has tried to strike a conciliatory tone on gay issues. He drew heat from social conservatives in January after saying people should accept court rulings that legalize same-sex marriage and should “show respect” for gays in committed relationships.

States are driving debate

The reaction of likely Republican candidates to the Indiana law captures a powerful dynamic at play in the early stages of the 2016 race. The actions of GOP-controlled state legislatures as well as Congress are setting the course of debate, leading the presidential contenders to grapple with controversies that arise in far-flung state capitals.

The frenzy of activity by conservative lawmakers is an outgrowth of Republicans’ sweeping success in state and federal elections in recent years, especially in the tea-party-fueled 2010 contests. Buoyed by their victories that year, many hard-right legislators have aggressively pursued conservative agendas on regulatory policy, social issues and labor law.

After Pence’s rocky appearance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Christian conservative leaders around the country organized a frantic outreach effort to pressure likely candidates to defend the legislation, according to several people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private communications.

The Republican Party has been fraught with tensions over the scope and details of such legislation. GOP leaders have been wary of upsetting more moderate swing voters but also nervous about angering the conservative activists who lifted them to power.

Outside groups, such as the right-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council, have gained traction as they have bolstered their relationships with ascendant Republicans in the states and have provided them with blueprints for a wide variety of bills.

On the right, religious liberty has emerged as a central issue, rooted in the ongoing fight over contraception coverage mandates in President Obama’s signature health-care law. The Supreme Court ruled last year that family-owned businesses do not have to offer their employees contraceptive coverage that conflicts with owners’ religious beliefs.

“Before the contraceptive mandate, very few people in the country knew what an RFRA was or had need to know,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, referring to Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. “Since then, there has been mass education, and people have sat up and paid attention.”

Much of the rallying behind the Indiana law can be credited to the ideological impulses of the modern GOP, but part of the response is also due to Pence’s strong political capital. The former talk-radio host became a high-ranking congressman with ties to influential religious conservatives.

He remains a force on the national stage, shuttling to Washington to nurture his relationships and taking to the speaking circuit to criticize Common Core, a set of education benchmarks adopted by most states that has sparked a revolt among conservative groups.

“Governor Pence has a lot of friends in the party,” said Pence pollster Kellyanne Conway. “He’s been very heartened by the e-mails, texts and personal calls he’s received from Republicans around the country.”