'Family values' lower on agenda in 2008 race

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.

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