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.
"First we had the feminist and the sexual revolutions, and then we went through a long period where so much of politics was a backlash against those movements," says Frances Fox Piven, a sociologist and political scientist at the City University of New York Graduate Center. "That's kind of been worked out now. People have adjusted."
What are 'family values'?
"Family values" is a political term open to interpretation. It has been associated with a range of conservative causes, including opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, women working outside the home, legal abortion, same-sex marriage and embryonic stem-cell research.
To some voters, the phrase has religious connotations. To others, it's about how politicians live and what it says about their character.
Three-quarters of the voters in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll last month said family values are extremely or very important to them. Asked what the term means, one-third said "strong families." Some called it a "ploy" by conservatives to win votes; others mentioned health care and abortion.
The poll also asked about the personal family values of politicians. More than half of voters said it would matter a great deal or a moderate amount to them if a candidate had an extramarital affair.
Big majorities, however, said they did not care about unconventional family structures such as a candidate with a much younger spouse. Most also said they didn't care whether a candidate's relatives campaigned for him or her.
Divorce appears to be a non-issue as well. In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll in February, two-thirds said they would vote for someone married three times.
All of that is good news for most of the GOP candidates and a couple of Democrats. Among the Republicans, Giuliani is in his third marriage while McCain and Thompson are each in his second. Thompson, 65, is 24 years older than his wife, Jeri. McCain, 71, is 18 years older than his wife, Cindy. Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee are married to their high school sweethearts.
On the Democratic side, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, 63, is 18 years older than his second wife, Jackie. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, 61, is in his third marriage; Elizabeth Kucinich is 31 years younger than her husband.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, former North Carolina senator John Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson are married to their original spouses. So is New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, despite her husband's affair while he was president. Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden remarried in 1977, five years after a drunken driver killed his first wife and baby daughter.
Overall, "the Democratic candidates actually have more stable family lives than the Republicans," says Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster.
As Bill Clinton's presidency showed, Americans separate political performance from private life. They continue to revere John F. Kennedy, despite evidence he had extramarital affairs.
Cultural conservatives viewed Ronald Reagan as their champion although he had been divorced, often was estranged from one or more of his four children and didn't always toe the line on social issues.
Between his 1976 and 1980 runs for president, for example, Reagan campaigned "vigorously and publicly" against a California initiative to ban gay teachers in public schools, Fabrizio says, and it was defeated. But in 1980 he highlighted his support for school prayer and opposition to abortion.
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman says Walter Mondale, with a long marriage and loving children, should have been the family-values candidate in his unsuccessful 1984 campaign against Reagan. "It has less to do with your personal situation and more to do with the narrative you construct about the country and yourself," he says.
The most surprising candidate this year has been Giuliani. He remains a top GOP contender despite his longstanding support for abortion rights and his widely publicized extramarital affair with Judith Nathan — to whom he is now married — during his previous marriage. He's even been endorsed by Pat Robertson, a leading Christian conservative who says the key issue is who can best fight terrorism.
Rice University sociologist D. Michael Lindsay, author of a new book on prominent evangelicals called Faith in the Halls of Power, says Robertson's move shocked him. The personal lives of candidates are very important to religious conservatives, Lindsay says, but Robertson's move shows that "it's possible for conservative Christians to put this aside in certain cases."
A changed nation
Religious conservatives are particularly influential in early GOP nomination contests in Iowa and South Carolina. Much attention has focused on the battle between Romney and Huckabee, a Baptist minister, to win their support.
The larger GOP picture makes Giuliani's current standing less puzzling. In a national Fabrizio poll of 2,000 Republicans in June, about one-quarter were "moralists" and large groups had other priorities.
More than half said candidates' leadership qualities are more important than their issue positions. More than half also said the GOP has put too much focus on moral issues and should spend more time on economic issues. By a 49%-42% plurality, they favored letting gays serve openly in the military.
The findings about Republicans reflect broader changes in society. The "traditional" family — a married couple with kids — made up fewer than 22% of U.S. households last year, according to the Census, down from 40% in 1970. Roughly one-fifth of Americans have been divorced. Nearly two in five U.S. births last year were out of wedlock, more than twice as high as in 1980. More than half the country says same-sex partners should be able to marry or form civil unions.
Democratic presidential candidates typically don't use the term "family values," but in what amounts to an indirect message to voters, their actual families are out in force.
Edwards has his parents, wife and children campaigning for him. Biden's relatives are also on the road, and Dodd has moved his wife and two girls to Iowa — even enrolling his older daughter in kindergarten there. Clinton is getting help from her husband, daughter and mother.
Until the past couple of weeks and Huckabee's surge in national and state polls, Romney was the only top-tier GOP candidate with an intact family. Romney's wife, Ann, playing off his Mormon faith's history of polygamy and his divorced political rivals, jokes that Romney is the only candidate with one wife. Their sons write a blog and serve as campaign spokesmen.
Huckabee's children are also active in his campaign. But their roles are largely behind the scenes. And he doesn't use the phrase family values in his speeches or ads.
Fabrizio says Huckabee is taking a different tack to tap into the same vein: "There's using the term and your family, and there's using your religion, which is the code. Huckabee has used it to his significant benefit in Iowa," such as in an ad that calls him a "Christian leader."
Romney, for his part, has an ad that says he and Huckabee are "good family men" and then attacks Huckabee for backing college aid to children of illegal immigrants. Romney has challenged Giuliani on the latter's messy private life, saying it's not enough to acknowledge mistakes (as Giuliani often does).
"It just drives me nuts" when politicians talk about their personal lives and say "everybody makes mistakes," Romney said recently. When you want to be president, "we expect you to live by a higher standard of conduct."
Earlier, Romney said a president can help instill family values "by having the White House be a place that demonstrates that." Bill Clinton's White House, he said, was not "helpful for our nation's culture."
Vogel, a former adviser to Quayle and former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, suggests Romney's lines of attack may be misguided. The GOP candidates appear to be in "happy, productive marital and family relationships" at this point and "voters aren't that interested in diving that much deeper into personal lives."
As for the general election, "people in both parties frankly got sick of talking about these issues" during the Clinton years, Vogel says. "National security, the economy and America's role in the world are more important to the electorate writ large than what some candidate has done in their personal life."
Contributing: Paul Overberg