'Family values' lower on agenda in 2008 race

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney likes to talk about "family values" — his own and his country's.

The future depends on "the work that goes on within the four walls of the American home," the former Massachusetts governor says. In one ad, he says "marriage must come before children." His wife and five adult sons, highly visible on the Internet and in his campaign, amplify the message.

Religious and cultural conservatives, unhappy about the rise of abortion and divorce, have made "family values" a staple of Republicans' political strategies for three decades. The phrase took on new life in 1992, when then-vice president Dan Quayle blasted fictional TV character Murphy Brown for having an illegitimate child. Family values were at the heart of a 2004 drive to put same-sex marriage bans on state ballots and draw conservatives to the polls.

Among the presidential contenders, however, Romney is virtually alone in stressing family values — a shift that reflects changes in society, the backgrounds of the Republican candidates and the urgency of issues such as war, terrorism and the economy.

Like many voters, three of the top GOP contenders — former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson — have been divorced and don't have "traditional" families. They also have nuanced positions on controversial issues associated with "family values," such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, there are signs that family values have lost their punch as a campaign issue. Most voters say family values in general are important to them, but a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds they don't care much about candidates' personal lives. Political analysts say voters and candidates have broader, more immediate concerns: the ongoing U.S. action in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, the threat of terrorism and an economy that's putting stress on low- and middle-income people.

"When there are weighty issues affecting our country, people focus on weighty issues," Republican strategist Alex Vogel says. "No matter which side you're on, there are a lot of important issues facing this country."

Americans have seen two starkly contrasting presidencies in the past 15 years. Bill Clinton had an extramarital affair while in office and the public gave him job-approval ratings of 60% or higher during the fallout and the related impeachment process that followed. President Bush's family life appears to have been smooth, but scarcely more than three in 10 Americans approve of his job performance.

Republican strategist Frank Luntz, an analyst for Fox News Channel, says the current atmosphere has been shaped by a series of traumas. The Sept. 11 attacks made the country seem vulnerable, he says, while Hurricane Katrina made the government seem incompetent and the Iraq war "has made us seem weak."

The political result, in Luntz's view: "In the 1980s and 1990s, the perfect shot was the candidate, the spouse, the kids and the dog. In the 21st century, it's all about action. It's all about getting things done."

Americans also have seen major cultural changes become woven into society. Divorce, blended families and women in the workforce are common, and polls show most people support gay civil rights.

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