WASHINGTON — The Republican contest to determine who will challenge California Sen. Barbara Boxer in the fall has focused so far on the bread-and-butter issues of the day – jobs, the economy and federal spending.
That's changing as the June primary draws closer. A national group opposed to gay marriage is trying to shift the focus to that lightning rod issue in the coming weeks, putting pressure on the candidate seen as the most moderate of the three GOP challengers.
Former congressman Tom Campbell, a supporter of gay marriage, finds himself under attack and his previous front-runner status reduced to a statistical tie with former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina in one poll. Another poll taken about the same time showed Campbell clinging to a narrow lead.
The National Organization for Marriage is spending $300,000 on television ads that liken Campbell to Boxer on taxes and gay marriage, calling them two peas in the same liberal pod.
Republicans who have been hard-liners on gay marriage and abortion typically perform well in GOP primaries in California but falter in general elections, when the voter base is far broader and more centrist. Republicans account for less than a third of the electorate.
A business professor who holds a doctorate in economics, Campbell is the kind of middle-of-the-road Republican who would be likely to give Boxer a tough challenge as she seeks a fourth term in the Senate. But his opposition to Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that enshrined a ban on gay marriage in the California Constitution, has made him a target of the social conservatives who dominate the ranks of the state GOP.
A recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California found that 67 percent of Republicans disagree with Campbell on the issue. The same poll found that for the first time more Californians support gay marriage than oppose it.
The National Organization for Marriage led the effort to pass Proposition 8, which voters approved 52 percent to 48 percent.
The advocacy group also spent money in New York and Massachusetts over the past year and takes some credit for spoiling the congressional campaign of Republican Dede Scozzafava in New York and helping Republican Scott Brown win the Massachusetts seat of former Sen. Ted Kennedy. Executive Director Brian Brown predicted that Campbell's support among Republican voters will wane as they realize where he stands on gay marriage.
"There's definitely a focus on the economy and rightly so, but that doesn't mean the social issues aren't part of the conversation," Brown said. "Some politicians do find it difficult to talk about. Our goal is to make it part of the conversation, and I think it's clearly working."
Brown's organization mailed fliers and made calls to thousands of voters in Scozzafava's district. Her withdrawal from the race wrecked the GOP's chances of gaining a seat in Congress. Brown said he's not worried that attacking Campbell hurts the GOP's prospects in California.
The Public Policy Institute of California poll released in late March showed Campbell and Fiorina in virtual ties with Boxer in hypothetical general election matchups. Fiorina has said she believes marriage should be between a man and a woman.
"Our goal is not to necessarily elect Republicans," Brown said. "Our goal is to elect candidates who will stand up and protect marriage."
In October 2008, a month before the Proposition 8 vote, Campbell wrote an op-ed column in which he said government has no business making distinctions between people based on their personal lives. He said California has always made itself stronger by welcoming people, not excluding them.
"For those of us who are proud of our party and our state's reputation for fairness and against discrimination, our choice is very clear: No on Proposition 8," he wrote.
During the California Republican Party convention in early March, Campbell was asked how he could connect with many in the party who are more conservative on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
"I'm telling you straight: Whenever I go out and speak, I get questions on unemployment, inflation, interest rates, the Central Valley being cut off from water. I don't get the social questions, and I think that's a sign of the importance of the economic issues," said Campbell, who also supports abortion rights.
Campbell's campaign team also believes having three candidates in the Republican primary race diminishes the disadvantage he might may face for his stand on gay marriage. They say Fiorina and state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore will divide the vote of social conservatives who view opposition to gay marriage as a top priority. DeVore, however, has failed to generate much support among likely voters.
Despite their more conservative social views, Fiorina and DeVore have taken a campaign approach similar to Campbell's by focusing on the economy.
They appear content to let independent groups such as the National Organization for Marriage make the case that Campbell's positions are out of step with most GOP primary voters. On her campaign Web site, for example, Fiorina highlights where she stands on eight issues. Gay marriage is not among them.
Julie Soderlund, spokeswoman for Fiorina, said the former HP executive answers questions when asked about where she stands on various social issues, but she'll keep her focus on fiscal matters.
"Voters are most concerned right now with the economy, job creation and out of control government spending. Those are the things she'll be focusing on throughout the campaign," Soderlund said.