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Perry bets the house on social conservatives

Cliff Owen / AP

Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry addresses the 2012 Republican Presidential Candidates Forum hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011, in Washington.



Rick Perry's campaign has pivoted to make a play for Iowa's socially conservative voters in the closing weeks of the primary campaign.

Perry's campaign, in the midst of a $1 million ad buy in the Hawkeye State, has highlighted the Texas governor's evangelical Christian faith in its two most recent ads.

"[Y]ou don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school," Perry said in his new ad, "Strong," released Wednesday. "As President, I'll end Obama's war on religion. And I'll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage."

In his previous ad, "Faith," he said: "Now some liberals say that faith is a sign of weakness. Well, they're wrong."

The spots appear to be part of an emergent strategy by Perry's campaign to focus on bread-and-butter social conservatism in a  last-ditch effort to revive his campaign before Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses, where social issues loom large.

"I think that’s probably the only path he [Perry] has left, to be honest," said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a caucus veteran who helped her dad, former Arkansas Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, win Iowa in 2008. "He hasn’t shown he’s been able to speak well and own any other issues."

Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, says the Perry campaign's direct appeal to Christian voters could work but a lot of voters are still undecided.

Perry's strategy extends beyond ads; when the Obama administration announced Tuesday that it would consider a nation's treatment of gays and lesbians in its foreign aid decisions, Perry pounced.

"Promoting special rights for gays in foreign countries is not in America's interests and not worth a dime of taxpayers' money," he said in a statement.

Additionally, Perry announced an endorsement Tuesday from New Hampshire Right to Life, an anti-abortion rights group.

The socially conservative vote in Iowa is fractured among a variety of candidates viewed as acceptable, said said Bob Vander Plaats, the CEO of THE FAMiLY LEADER. His group's board of directors had said last month that Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum were all eligible for their endorsement, and Vander Plaats said Wednesday that Iowa conservatives are divided between them.

"There's no doubt that he's trying to make a coalescing move by making it a focus of who he is as it relates to his policies. I think when he was the frontrunner ... he tried to make the focus about the economy, Texas, jobs -- and he had a good story to tell," he said of Perry's new effort. "Now he's getting back to square one, which is: Who is Rick Perry?"

But whether a Republican candidate will be able to rally based on social issues may be another story.

A Washington Post/ABC poll released this week found that social issues like abortion and gay marriage is the third-most important issue among likely Republican caucus-goers. Fifteen percent of likely caucus attendees said social issues were their most important ones, compared to 38 percent who named the economy and jobs as the top issue, and 28 percent who identified the federal budget deficit as their top issue.

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Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, won the 2008 caucuses in part due to his ability to appeal to voters on social issues. Sixty percent of Republican caucus-goers identified themselves as evangelical Christians that year -- and Huckabee won the bulk of them.

Those issues "still matter," said said his daughter, but jobs and the economy, along with electability, weigh more heavily on voters in 2012. That's why Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich remain viable in Iowa, she said. But it's also why Perry is airing ads of this type.

"Right now, you’re not going to see Gov. Romney or Speaker Gingrich cut that ad," Huckabee Sanders said. She explained that social conservatives are "a constituency that [Perry] can still try to own and distinguish himself from other top-tier candidates. But being able to speak eloquently on jobs and the economy is important, too.

For Iowa Republicans,  a candidates's economic views, 71 to 14 percent, outweighed social views in importance, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll. Fifty-five percent of Hawkeye Republicans said it was somewhat or very important a candidate shares their religious beliefs, while 45 percent it was not very or not at all important.

But there are some signs that the importance of social issues may be eroding. Twenty-two percent of Iowa Republicans said they believed same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, while 36 percent preferred civil unions to recognize same-sex partnerships. Thirty-eight percent said same-sex couples should enjoy no legal recognition.

And an early October CBS poll found that Republicans nationally, 48 percent to 41 percent, favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military -- the very issue at which Perry took aim in his new ad.

Vander Plaats said he didn't see any erosion, though, in the importance of those issues.

"I really believe the fiscal conservative, the establishment Republican are beginning to draw the connection where, if you don't have healthy families, you'll never be able to grow the economy and limit government," he said.

And in maybe the best measurement, he said that candidates are still courting his endorsement; he said he hears from the Republican contenders almost daily, having spoken to Rick Santorum this morning, and tentatively Michele Bachmann on Thursday.

THE FAMiLY LEADER's board met Tuesday evening to talk about and endorsement, but couldn't reach consensus at this point. It's possible that they might not endorse, Vander Plaats said.