02/28/2012 02:31 pm ET

Democratic Governors Warn Obama Campaign To Avoid Focusing On Social Issues

WASHINGTON -- Some of the nation's top Democratic governors are urging party leadership to avoid getting consumed by social issues, even as focusing on them has proven beneficial for their political prospects.

In interviews with The Huffington Post conducted over the past few days, several prominent Democrats were practically gleeful over what they saw as the damage the GOP had sustained from focusing on issues like contraception, ultrasounds, and the role of religion in government. But few wanted to see those topics become a prominent focus among their own party, arguing that the oxygen in the room of the Democratic National Convention hall should be saved almost exclusively for economic concerns.

"I think the most important thing that we need to do at the convention is stay focused on jobs, focused on the economy, focused on opportunity and making the right decisions now," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association. "I think that's what's going to re-elect the president and hopefully elect more Democrats to Congress so that we can get more done."

O'Malley is not a disinterested or sidelined player in the so-called culture wars. This week, he is set to sign a marriage equality bill into law in his home state, making him one of the most accomplished legislative leaders on LGBT rights. But when pressed as to whether he thought marriage equality had a place at the convention, he could only muster a non-committal reply.

"I don't know," he said. "I think we all have to step up to it within the context of our own communities and I think some states advance more quickly than others. And Democratic leaders will always, I think, in this conversation seek to advance the way towards greater respect for the equal rights of all. And some communities will get there, some states will get there before others."

Not everyone in the party is as hesitant to elevate same-sex marriage to a convention issue. On Tuesday, two national co-chairs for President Obama's re-election campaign, former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), formally called for marriage equality to be part of the party platform. But O'Malley's comments do underscore the quintessential debate that confronts Democrats every election cycle: Do cultural issues drive turnout or muddy the message? Can you have both?

"We find it all okay if Republicans want to talk about condoms and birth control pills," California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) told The Huffington Post shortly after a meeting between the nation's governors and the president. "But Democrats would rather focus on jobs. I think that is the winning approach."

What's markedly different about this cycle from those in the past, however, is that the public seems to be clearly leaning in one direction. The president's requirement that religious institutions, with some exceptions, should cover the contraception costs of their workers polls well, even among Catholic voters. Same-sex marriage is a cause favored by a vast majority of Democrats and even many Republicans. A series of controversial statewide initiatives that would make abortions far less accessible, meanwhile, seem to be driving women toward the Obama campaign. An Associated Press-GfK poll released on Monday evening showed a ten-percentage point jump in Obama's approval rating among women since December.

But the idea that the election would end up being decided on these issues has always been far-fetched. And while one Obama re-elect official told The Huffington Post last week that the campaign saw the contraception debate as something that would drive suburban female voters in swing states, on Monday a White House official cautioned against getting too drawn into these types of debates.

"Look," the official told The New York Times, "we don’t want to overplay this either, so we'll be cautious."

At the Monday meeting with the nation's governors, the president stayed away from any discussion of the raging debates on social issues. According to attendees, the conversation focused primarily on federal mandates for states, tax incentives, education policy, and additional ways to stimulate job creation. For Democrats in attendance, the narrower list of topics was just fine.

"The most important thing all across this country is not just your own job but another generation's," said Governor Brian Schweitzer (D-Mont.). "I don't know what the functional unemployment is of people that are 18-25, but it is probably double what the national unemployment rate is. And so every parent my age and older is worried about their children's job. It is not just their own job."