'Family values' lower on agenda in 2008 race

"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.

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