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Conservatives Weigh Social, Economic Concerns as Midterms Approach

September 17, 2010 at 6:29 PM EDT
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Kwame Holman reports from the Values Voter Summit on how social conservatives are trying to shape the Republican message for the fall campaign.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: a look at conservatives on the move. NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Former Arkansas Governor: Welcome to Washington, D.C., the most disconnected city in all of America.

(LAUGHTER)

KWAME HOLMAN: Fresh off another round of victories by insurgent candidates in Republican primaries this week, conservatives are feeling ascendant.

MIKE HUCKABEE: Well, we have somehow, amazingly, survived Barack Obama’s recovery summer.

(LAUGHTER)

MIKE HUCKABEE: But I will tell you what I’m looking forward to. It’s not his recovery summer. It’s our recovery fall, when we take back both the House and the Senate.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

KWAME HOLMAN: In a political season dominated by economic issues of taxes, spending, and the federal debt, thousands of social conservatives came together in Washington this weekend to try to shift the focus back to their agenda, which, for decades, has energized Republican politics. That agenda includes opposing abortion rights and gay marriage.

MITT ROMNEY (R), Former Massachusetts Governor: Americans believe that Washington is threatening the very foundations of what has made America America. Washington is assaulting America’s values. It’s endeavoring to change what this nation has been, to change what it is, and to change what it’s destined to become.

This room is filled every year with citizens, modern patriots, who are passionate about America’s values. These values include the sanctity of life and the preservation of marriage.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

KWAME HOLMAN: Some rank-and-file conservatives, such as Walter Billingsley of Tupelo, Mississippi, say social issues have been given short shrift.

WALTER BILLINGSLEY, Tupelo, Mississippi: I think they have been pushed aside, and they have been separated from economic issues where they shouldn’t be. And I think that’s in error, that you really can’t separate those two. It’s very important for a country to have families that are together, that are strong. It’s — it’s very important for us to have respect for human life.

KWAME HOLMAN: Others here at what organizers call the Values Voter Summit agreed. Virginia Schuster is from Reisterstown, Maryland.

VIRGINIA SCHUSTER, Reisterstown, Maryland: I think we’re concerned about both issues, the economic issues and the social issues. I think we have reached a situation in the country where it’s — people are alarmed. They’re scared. They’re upset. And they’re stirred up. And they’re — they’re voting.

Eric Lupardus came from Ravenna, Ohio.

ERIC LUPARDUS, Ravenna, Ohio: Being fiscally responsible isn’t just good economic policy. It’s morally correct. It’s morally wrong to leave generations — you know, to spend money now and make generations pay it back later.

KWAME HOLMAN: That same message was echoed on stage today from the lineup of Republican political heavyweights who addressed the summit, such as Indiana Congressman Mike Pence.

REP. MIKE PENCE (R-Ind.): We will not restore this nation with public policy alone. It will require public virtue. And that emanates from the traditional institutions of our nation: life and family and religion.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

REP. MIKE PENCE: Now, I know that some say Republicans should stay away from these issues this year, that the American people are focused on jobs and spending, and our movement would do well to stand aside, bank the win, return to the fight after the fiscal and economic crisis has passed.

But we do not live in a world where an American leader can just focus on the financial ledger.

KWAME HOLMAN: That point has been a source of tension within the Republican Party. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said last week: “Any issue that takes people’s eye off unemployment, job creation, economic growth, taxes, spending, deficits, debts is taking their eye off the ball. That’s what the American people are concerned about.”

And when South Carolina’s Jim DeMint appeared at the summit this morning, he highlighted another split in the party. DeMint has bucked the Senate GOP establishment to support a number of insurgent candidates. He told the crowd, principles mattered more than party.

SEN. JIM DEMINT (R-S.C.): This no longer voting for least worst on the ballot. We have — we have got some candidates that we can be proud of that we know, when they get to Washington, that they’re going to stand up and speak for you and the millions of Americans who, for years, have felt ignored.

KWAME HOLMAN: DeMint has said he would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who share his conservative principles than a filibuster-proof 60 who don’t.

One of DeMint’s preferred candidates is Delaware Republican Christine O’Donnell, who upset moderate Congressman Mike Castle in Tuesday’s primary. O’Donnell’s win has given Democrats new hope they can win in Delaware, but O’Donnell also has injected new excitement into the conservative base.

She spoke to the summit this afternoon.

CHRISTINE O’DONNELL (R-), Delaware Senatorial Candidate: The small elite don’t get us. They call us wacky. They call us wing nuts. We call us we, the people.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

KWAME HOLMAN: Polls show conservatives are highly enthusiastic about voting this fall. The key for Republicans may be to find common ground between the party’s ideological purists and its political pragmatists.