The Conservative Prescription for Romney: More Social Issues

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To "values voters," the problem with Romney's campaign is not enough red meat -- and not enough Paul Ryan.

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Reuters

The mood at the Values Voter Summit, the Family Research Council's annual gathering of social conservatives in Washington, is nervous. A row of metal detectors, manned by very thorough TSA workers, guards the entrance, a reminder that a gunman with a backpack full of Chick-fil-A charged into the organization's lobby and shot a security guard last month. Between that and the fact that the Republican presidential ticket is behind in the polls, the right-wing persecution complex is at a particularly high pitch.

In the seven years the summit has been held, this is the first not to feature Mitt Romney, but he sent in his stead Paul Ryan, the vice-presidential nominee. And that, for this audience, was even better. "In this election, many millions of Americans count themselves as values voters, and I am one of them," Ryan said, to cheers.

Despite his reputation as primarily a fiscal wonk, Ryan is adept at speaking this crowd's language -- far more so than Romney. Ryan's speech segued smoothly from calling for stronger leadership in foreign affairs to a case for less government intervention in the economy to an anti-abortion clarion call. "'We're all in this together' -- it has a nice ring. For everyone who loves this country, it is not only true but obvious," Ryan says. "Yet how hollow it sounds coming from a politician who has never once lifted a hand to defend the most helpless and innocent of all human beings, the child waiting to be born."

Ryan got a rapturous response -- a standing ovation. After the conference broke for lunch, I ran across Bryan Fischer, the radio host and evangelical activist known for his anti-gay and anti-Mormon rhetoric. He fears that Romney is going to lose -- and the reason, he believes, is that Romney is not coming across as a strong social conservative.

"You'll notice the applause for Mitt Romney was polite but not enthusiastic," Fischer said. "The response for Paul Ryan was enthusiastic. That's because we know that social values are part of his DNA -- part of the wallpaper of Paul Ryan's soul." The Romney campaign, he said, has "put a sock in Paul Ryan's mouth," and needs to un-muzzle him if it wants to succeed.

Fischer is a fringe figure -- after being denounced from the podium by Romney last year, he is not on the Values Voter program this time -- but the idea that Romney would benefit from greater emphasis on social issues was common among both speakers and attendees at the summit. While many in the professional Republican class worry that Romney is insufficiently focused on his core economic message, and unduly prone to taking up distracting side issues, for this group, just the opposite is true.

While some Republicans worry that Romney is too prone to taking up distracting social issues, for this group, just the opposite is true.

Pundits will tell you the election is about the economy, "and it is," said Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader. "But for all of us who know that this country values liberty and freedom, we know that this election is about something more. This election is going to determine whether or not the very moral fabric of our country will be upheld."

I met Ronald Goss, a 66-year-old retired law-enforcement officer who now runs a ministry in Locust Dale, Virginia, with his wife. He offered to send me a free eight-by-10 black-and-white drawing of Jesus, eyes closed, snuggling a lamb. The campaign, he said, is "ugly," and not focused on the right things. "Protecting life, for one thing," he said. "We do not believe in murdering babies. We need to bring America back to the principles it was founded on."

What Tony Perkins, the Family Research Council's president, noticed about Ryan's speech was that he got heckled. Three times, protesters shouting slogans about getting corporate money out of politics stood up to disrupt Ryan, only to get promptly shouted down with chants of "U.S.A.!" and hauled out by guards. To Perkins, it's clear Ryan is a target for the steadfastness of his views.

"He tends to get the hecklers, just as Sarah Palin did," Perkins told me. "People want to silence him. They don't want his voice to be heard. That makes it even more important that we listen."

Romney, Perkins said, will win by tapping a well of voters who aren't showing up in any of the current polls because they didn't vote last time. "They were not excited by John McCain and didn't feel threatened by Barack Obama," he said. But this time, he said, they will vote.

The president of the council's PAC, Connie Mackey, said she understands why the economy gets the most attention. "People are out of work, and that's central," she said in an interview. But she, too, would like to see more attention paid to social issues, which she says would especially help Romney as he struggles to win women's votes. "There's a depth of caring on the part of the unborn," she said.

Nonetheless, Mackey was surprised, and not pleasantly so, to see the election so close. "I think it's closer than they'd like it to be. I think they could be doing better," she said of Romney and Ryan. "Given the economy, the slow turnaround, the stimulus going to companies that failed, the American public seems to be polling a lot closer than I would have guessed."

Mackey didn't have a theory as to why Obama isn't toast -- she just didn't understand it. But like many on the right, she is looking forward to the next potential turning point in the campaign.

"I think the debates will be crucial," she said.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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