WASHINGTON — With Texas Gov. Rick Perry struggling to regain traction four weeks before the Iowa caucuses, his presidential campaign is running television ads attacking the Obama administration on gay rights instead of the economy, which tops even socially conservative voters' list of concerns.
In the ad, Perry says he'd end what he calls President Barack Obama's "war on religion."
"You don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school," he says in the ad.
Perry has said in interviews that he thought the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" prohibition on openly gay service members worked well. The policy ended in September, and the military has reported few problems making the transition. Marine Gen. James Amos, one of the repeal's biggest skeptics, acknowledged in an Associated Press interview earlier this fall that the change was a "non-event."
Gay rights groups were appalled at Perry's ad.
"He's taking a fringe view and making it sound like it's mainstream," said Dan Rafter, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization in Washington. "It's insulting to active-duty service members who are putting their lives on the line."
Republican presidential candidates largely have shied away from talking about social issues, preferring to criticize Obama's handling of the economy. The national unemployment rate is 8.6 percent, and social issues haven't resonated the way they did in past presidential elections.
Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan said the governor had "a strong record and strong feelings" on social issues, and that the ad was a way of showing voters where he stood.
"The ad is really aimed at the Obama administration and their assault on religion and traditional values," Sullivan said. "Many of our traditional values are being either assaulted or abandoned by the Obama administration."
When asked what Republican voters' biggest priorities are, however, Sullivan singled out the economy.
"They are concerned about jobs, excess in Washington and overhauling Washington, D.C., and getting back on track," he said "Our campaign has discussed and will continue to discuss those important issues."
Perry's ad appears aimed at Iowa's most socially conservative voters, who traditionally turn out in large numbers in the caucuses. In 2008, they chose former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a social conservative.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich leads in Iowa, but not by a lot. Perry might be trying to fire up socially conservative caucus voters who aren't solidly behind Gingrich or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and pick up support from those who might like Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum or the backers of Herman Cain, who ended his presidential campaign last week amid allegations of sexual harassment and marital infidelity.
"To the extent that Perry is competing against them for that vote, it's one way for him to say so," said Timothy Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.
Hagle said the Republican candidates weren't that far apart on economic issues, so they needed to do something to stand out when the candidates were close and the race was fluid.
"So the thing to differentiate themselves is to talk about social issues, even though they're lower on the scale," he said. But Hagle also said the strategy could backfire.
"A lot of people on the right would say, "Why bring that up?' " he said. "A number of people on the right don't want to focus on social issues."
Jimmy LaSalvia, the executive director of GOProud, a Republican gay rights group in Washington, said it was a sign of desperation for Perry's campaign.
"He's so desperate for anyone to pay attention to him," LaSalvia said. "He's going after a portion of the electorate that's so tiny because everyone else has written him off."
LaSalvia said Republicans should focus on defeating Obama, and that Perry's ad was a distraction.
"He's made the decision to launch a war on gay soldiers and gay Americans," LaSalvia said. "Our party should be coming together to pick a nominee who can replace the failed president, and this type of rhetoric and language does nothing to accomplish that goal."
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