WASHINGTON – What "religious freedom" bill?
Republicans stung by the culture wars that dominated the nation's political discourse this year are standing down on social issues, acutely aware that the presidential and congressional elections five months off are expected to turn on a thin margin of cash-strapped independent voters neither party can afford to alienate.
How about House Speaker John Boehner's vow to reverse President Barack Obama's birth control policy? There's no sign of any such legislation. The Ohio Republican reminds people daily that he is focused on jobs now.
Obama's revelation that he supports gay marriage? Told ya so, said social conservatives at the core of the GOP — before they turned back to assailing the president's stewardship of the economy.
And what happened to the GOP's efforts to curb abortion? House Republican leaders made it go away by offering a vote on a bill to ban gender-based abortions Thursday — under special rules that guaranteed it would fail.
There is a growing sense among Republicans that, with Mitt Romney all but crowned as their presidential nominee, social issues generally are losers for the party at a time when the GOP is trying to appeal to swing voters. Through a searing primary season that erupted repeatedly over gender politics to the general election now under way, polls have consistently shown that voters remain most concerned about jobs and the economy.
"I'm not trying to dismiss the social issues ... they are important to a lot of people," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, one of Romney's liaisons to Congress. "But we must stay focused on the jobs and the economy. That does more to affect people's social (policy) than anything else."
Polls and the party's recent experience suggest the strategy also is smart politics. For one thing, Friday's economic news showed unemployment rose slightly in May, with the jobless rate ticking up from 8.1 percent to 8.2 percent.
The GOP took a drubbing over the winter after picking a fight over a provision in Obama's health care law that required employers to provide workers access to contraception, even when religious views prohibit its use. In a coordinated effort, Republicans on both sides of the Capitol denounced the policy as a violation of the Constitution's guarantee of religious liberty and vowed to reverse Obama's rule. Democrats fired back that Republicans were trying to limit access to contraception as part of a "Republican war against women."
Polls showed that the Democrats won that early round, key to their mission to retain Obama's wide lead among women, who account for a majority of voters in presidential election years. Republicans were slow to respond, and Romney never engaged in the debate over contraception, convinced then as now that all Americans view the election as referendum on Obama's stewardship of the recovering economy.
Recent voter research offers support for the move away from the sort of "culture war" that conservative Patrick Buchanan called for from the podium of the Republican National Convention in 1992. Many Republicans viewed that approach as one that alienated moderates. Two decades later, as the candidates battle over that same voting bloc, polling suggests that social issues are a motivating factor for female voters — but not in the Republicans' favor.
An AP-GfK poll conducted earlier this month showed Obama holding a 53 percent to 32 percent advantage over Romney as the candidate who would do a better job handling social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
And while a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday showed Republican women warming to Romney, other surveys suggest he still faces a broad gap on issues of concern to women.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll also released Wednesday found that 4 in 10 women have taken some political action as a result of things they've heard, read or seen recently about women's reproductive health choices and services. Among liberal women, 51 percent said they had taken action, compared with 41 percent among conservative women.
Social issues change minds, notably among independent women, the survey found. Thirteen percent of women who identified themselves as independents said they had changed their mind about who to vote for as a result of news on reproductive issues, compared with 9 percent of Republican women and 7 percent of Democratic women.
Social issues have great emotional resonance in political campaigns and are thus risky subjects for emphasis in close elections. That's why House Republican leaders last month struck a deal with Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., to bring up the gender-based anti-abortion bill for a vote on its own, rather than attach it to the controversial Violence Against Women Act.
On Thursday, Franks' bill got a vote — under a rule that required the support of two-thirds of the House. It failed by 30 votes. A leadership aide said there were no plans to bring it up for passage by a simple majority. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.
Steering away from social issues doesn't sit easily with some conservatives. Buchanan, for example, is still advocating on his blog for a culture war. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, a leader of the House's most conservative members, said he hopes House GOP leaders will bring back Franks' anti-abortion bill for passage with a simple majority.
"I think there's an understanding among everyone about how serious the fiscal situation is, that under President Obama, our economy is not growing the way we want it to grow," said Jordan, who like Boehner is from swing state Ohio. "But just because we understand that doesn't mean we have abandoned or forgotten the idea that there are certain fundamental principles and values that are worth defending."
First things first, countered another swing-state Republican, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri.
"I truly believe that those things will shake out in a more positive way if we can just deal with the issues that we really need to deal with, on the economy and fiscal side," Emerson said. "And shame on us if we can't do it."
Associated Press Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.