Texas Gov. Rick Perry is addressing students at the nation's largest evangelical university just as he's fending off criticism from his Republican presidential rivals over cultural issues.
It's not clear whether Perry will use the speech Wednesday at Liberty University to defend _ or even address _ his effort to require girls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease or a law allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition. Neither issue sits well with social conservatives, who hold great sway in the GOP nomination race.
The GOP race has been dominated by economic concerns and criticism of President Barack Obama's stewardship, pushing such cultural issues to the back burner. In recent days, during a debate and on the campaign trail, Perry's rivals have started trying to exploit Perry's perceived weaknesses on such issues to deflate his front-runner in national polls and boost their own prospects.
"It is time that Gov. Perry is known for what he really is: not a long-time conservative governor, but a big-government moderate who has made a career of supporting harmful policies during his tenure as governor," former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said Tuesday.
Taking her own swing, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota questioned whether Perry was conservative enough for GOP primary voters. "We are in danger of sending a candidate who does not adhere to our shared values to face Barack Obama in the general election," she said.
Both are competing with Perry for the support of the GOP's social conservative base and using parts of his record to try to gain ground.
Specifically, they are singling him out for signing an order in 2007 requiring Texas girls to be vaccinated against the virus that can cause cervical cancer; it included a provision that allowed parents to block their daughters' participation. The legislature rejected the measure; conservative critics worried that it tacitly approved premarital sex.
On immigration, Perry has had to defend in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants and his opposition to a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Both positions conflict with GOP orthodoxy and rile cultural conservatives.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has started pointing that out.
"Of course, we build a fence and, of course, we do not give in-state tuition credits to people who come here illegally. That only attracts people to come here and take advantage of America's great beneficence," Romney said.
It's not hard to understand why abortion and gay rights aren't driving the conversation. Voters say the economy and the 9.1 percent national unemployment rate matter most. In good economic times, voters have the luxury of caring about social issues; in rough economic times, feeding the family tends to trump such matters.
"I still think the economy will be the No. 1 issue," said Kevin Smith, executive director of New Hampshire's conservative Cornerstone Action think tank. "The candidates are almost all on the same page looking forward. But as they're trying to distinguish themselves, they're looking at their records."
Perry's rivals have little choice but to do that. He complicates Bachmann's prospects because both appeal to similar voters _ tea partyers who are frustrated with the economy and say Washington is out of touch as well as social conservatives who care about cultural issues.
Both are competing for voters who are looking for an alternative to Romney. He is running for president a second time after losing in 2008; he wasn't able to overcome skepticism of his Mormon faith among evangelicals in the lead-off caucus in Iowa and first-in-the-South primary host South Carolina.
The candidates are likely to take on social issues again next week when the "don't ask, don't tell" policy formally ends, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.
The GOP contenders are already using social issues to raise money ahead of the next collection deadline, Sept. 30. Santorum and Bachmann both wrote to supporters asking for money after the debate _ and noted their attacks on Perry's record on social issues.