By CHARLES BABINGTON
WASHINGTON - Social issues dominated the 2012 presidential race Friday, as President Barack Obama tried to calm a storm over religion and birth control and the Republicans vying to replace him jockeyed to outdo each other in proving their conservative fervor.
There was little time left for talk of jobs and the economy, subjects still expected to dominate the fall election. In that sense, the day's events may become little more than a footnote.
But Democrats hope the unusually intense focus on social issues, even if temporary, will help them portray Republicans as out of step with middle America on matters such as access to birth control, equal treatment of men and women, and government philosophies that put problem-solving ahead of ideological purity.
Three of the four GOP presidential candidates addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference, emphasizing their fealty to activists on the right. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney declared himself "severely conservative."
That wasn't enough for former Sen. Rick Santorum, who surprised Republicans by winning this week's caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota. Even if Romney goes on to defeat Obama this fall, Santorum told the CPAC crowd it would be a "hollow victory" because Romney isn't conservative enough.
Sandwiched between Santorum's and Romney's speeches, Obama announced a much-anticipated change to a rule that would have required religious-affiliated institutions, such as Catholic hospitals, to include birth control in their employee's health insurance plans. Republican presidential candidates and lawmakers and Catholic bishops denounced that as government infringement on religious rights. So Obama on Friday said insurance companies, and not religious institutions, can offer contraceptive coverage to the employees at no cost.
To the White House's relief, major women's rights groups praised the change, and some Catholic groups withheld strong judgment. Democratic strategists said the day's dynamics could result in GOP candidates moving so far to the right that the eventual presidential nominee will struggle to woo crucial independent voters in the fall.
"The Republican candidates stand for positions that are far more conservative than the mainstream, and that is not something they can back out of in a general election," said Jen Psaki, a former Obama aide who has monitored the reaction by women's groups to the contraception debate.
Romney used his 24-minute speech to say he proved his conservative mettle as Massachusetts governor.
"I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism," he said.
Romney said he would cut federal spending like he cut state spending, although he vowed not to touch military budgets.
"I was a conservative governor," he said. "I fought against long odds in a deep blue state. I understand the battles that we, as conservatives, must fight because I have been on the front lines."
But Romney skated past details of his administration that trouble some conservatives, including requiring state residents to obtain health insurance.
Santorum, who spoke ahead of Romney without saying his name, said the former governor's health care record would make it impossible for him to draw needed contrasts with Obama. He said Romney had created "the stepchild of Obamacare."
The Obama-backed 2010 health care law "will crush economic freedom," Santorum said. He urged Republicans not to nominate "someone who would simply give that issue away in the fall."
Even if Romney could win it all, Santorum said, "we will no longer abandon and apologize for the policies and principles that made this country great for a hollow victory in November."
CPAC often brings out edgy comments from candidates. Still, if Republican voters see Santorum's remarks as a hint that he thinks it's more important to be ideologically pure than to beat Obama, it could cause problems in the days ahead.
Romney tried to reassure the audience that antipathy to Obama will energize millions of voters this fall. It was an indirect way to say the lukewarm reception he gets from some conservatives isn't fatal.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich regaled the CPAC audience with his promises to slash government spending painlessly, through business-tested efficiency techniques.
Like Romney and Santorum, he blasted Obama's contraception policies without delving into details of the latest changes.
"This administration is waging war on religion," said Gingrich, who grew up as a Protestant but converted to Roman Catholicism. "I frankly don't care what deal he tries to cut," he said of Obama. "He will wage war on the Catholic Church the morning after he's elected. We cannot trust him."
Santorum, a Catholic with a strong record of fighting legalized abortion, said Obama is "telling the Catholic Church that they are forced to pay for things that are against their basic tenets and teachings."
"It's not about contraception, it's about economic liberty," he said.
Romney, a Mormon who once supported legalized abortion, vowed to reverse "every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life."
His critics cite a 2005 interview in which Romney said rape victims deserved either access to or information about so-called morning after pills that some see as a form of abortion.
All three GOP candidates restated their standard criticisms of Obama. Romney called him "the poster child for the arrogance of government."
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.