WASHINGTON — All of a sudden, abortion, contraception and gay marriage are at the center of American political discourse, with the struggling — though improving — economy pushed to the background.
Social issues don't typically dominate the discussion in shaky economies. But they do raise emotions important to factors like voter turnout. And they can be key tools for political candidates clamoring for attention, campaign cash or just a change of subject in an election year.
"The public is reacting to what it's hearing about," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. In a political season, he said, "when the red meat is thrown out there, the politicians are going to go after it."
The economy still tops the list of voters' concerns and probably will still shape this presidential election. For now, at least, the culture wars of the 1990s are back. It's not clear which party will benefit because the same group of voters that opposes abortion might split over gay marriage or whether cancer research should be immune from politics. And it's not yet known to what extent, if at all, social issues will influence voters on Election Day.
Jobs, jobs, jobs — it's been the governing mantra of both parties since the economic bust of 2008, through President Barack Obama's sweeping overhaul of health insurance and the 2010 elections that returned control of the House to Republicans. Since then, voters have turned angry while remaining anxious over the economy's crawl toward stability. Republicans have been keen to blame the slow-motion progress on Obama in their drive to deny him a second term.
Then, as the GOP nomination fight churned with no resolution in sight, the economy began to grow. Unemployment rates dipped. And a cascade of cultural political developments inspired a new set of talking points for the year's crop of political hopefuls:
—Supporters of Planned Parenthood, which provides abortion services, helped force the resignation of Susan G. Komen For the Cure executive Karen Handel after the breast cancer research group cut grants to the organization, then reversed course.
—Catholic bishops began sparring with the White House over a new requirement that Catholic-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and schools must provide insurance coverage for birth control for their employees even though the church opposes artificial contraception. On Friday, Obama announced an update to the policy. Under the change, religious employers will not have to cover birth control for their employees. The government, instead, will demand that insurance companies be directly responsible for providing contraception.
—A federal appeals court in California struck down the state's gay marriage ban, prompting criticism from the Republican presidential candidates and others who charged that unelected judges were overruling the will of voters.
For both parties, social policy puts key constituencies at stake. Republicans are courting the religious conservatives that populate their base, including Catholics in battleground states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Obama, meanwhile, is trying to preserve support among women, moderates and independents.
Wednesday was a key pivot point.
Hours after GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum won all three states holding votes Tuesday night and stalled Mitt Romney's modest winning streak, congressional leaders issued tightly coordinated statements on another subject: The White House's policy on birth control coverage was a government mandate that threatens religious freedom and violates the Constitution.
In a floor speech rare for a speaker of the House, Ohioan John Boehner, a Catholic, accused the administration of undermining some of the country's most vital institutions, such as Catholic charities, schools and hospitals. He demanded that Obama rescind the policy and pledged that Congress would if Obama didn't.
"This attack by the federal government on religious freedom in our country cannot stand, and will not stand," Boehner said.
Across the Capitol, one rising star made clear the matter was a starkly political issue in the year's presidential and congressional elections.
"We have plenty of other issues to take to the American people throughout the year and in the November elections. This doesn't have to be one of them," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in English. As he often does, Rubio repeated his statement in Spanish — an effort to make sure Hispanic voters in Florida and beyond, many of them Catholic, got the message.
But where Republicans cast the White House's contraception policy as an assault on the freedom of religion itself, Democrats argued for the preservation of affordable birth control for women. The White House circulated letters from women's groups defending the policy and signaled on Tuesday that a compromise was possible.
Former Obama aide Jen Psaki suggested the uproar was due in part to the GOP nomination fight, noting that the administration's directive requiring church-affiliated employers to cover birth control for their employees was based on a policy used by many states.
"Where has the outrage been up to now?" Psaki said.
On the presidential campaign trail, the GOP candidates competing for conservative votes presented themselves as foes of any efforts to remove religion and morals from public discourse. Some described those efforts in the language of war.
Romney, a Mormon, is embracing social issues in a way he hasn't to this point in the campaign as he fends off threats from two challengers. The Obama administration, he says, is waging "an assault on religion."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Catholic, says Democrats have "declared war on the Catholic Church."
Santorum's resurgence has coincided with the surge in controversy over social issues. During a two-day sprint through Oklahoma and Texas, he used the marriage and contraception rulings on the two coasts to raise broader concerns that the courts and the Obama administration are "trying to shutter faith" and "push it out of the public square."
"They are taking faith and crushing it," he told a Texas rally Wednesday. "When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what's left?"
It's powerful rhetoric, to be sure. But interviews Thursday with nearly two dozen attendees of the Conservative PAC convention in Washington produced remarkably similar sentiments: Even the most conservative voter cares most about the nation's fiscal health.
"I really think this election will turn on the economy," said Tina Katcheves, 38, a patent attorney from Howard County, Md.