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Conservatives fret GOP candidates veer too far right

WASHINGTON -- Amid the heated primary fight, conservative analysts are warning Republican presidential contenders against pegging campaigns to social and religious issues that could cost the party at the November polls.

At a time when many voters thought the 2012 campaign would be a referendum on U.S. President Barack Obama's handling of the economy, Republicans have seized on issues like abortion, birth control and gay marriage to mount strident attacks against his administration.

Even some conservatives worry the focus on these “values issues” could alienate moderate and independent voters, whose backing is central to wresting the White House from Obama in the Nov. 6 election.

“It's hard for me to see, at least at this point, social issues trumping the economy,” said Karlyn Bowman, from the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

“At least in this election, the economy I would say is the number one, two, three, four and five issue in American politics,” Bowman told AFP.

Henry Olsen, another conservative political analyst at AEI, agreed that Democrats were set to benefit if social issues become the defining Republican themes of their election plan.

“Taken as a whole, the Democrats would rather fight this campaign on social issues rather than economic issues,” he said. “To the extent that all of the social issues combined become a defining issue, that is bad for the Republicans.”

The focus on morals and values reached a crescendo ahead of key Republican nominating contests next Tuesday in Michigan and Arizona, where religion and values-tinged themes have played well with conservative voters.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who in November suggested that poor inner-city kids should be employed as school janitors to learn the value of hard work, this month declared at a conservative forum that Obama wanted to “wage war on the Catholic church.”

Meanwhile Mitt Romney, a Mormon former Massachusetts governor who has generally tempered in his remarks on religion, accused the president at a debate this week in Arizona of undermining “religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance.”

Romney's closest rival, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, has been most aggressive in his rhetoric on social and religious themes. Last week he accused Obama of promoting a “phony theology” with his environmental policies.

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