By Halimah Abdullah, TODAY.com contributor
Birth control was the boo-eliciting buzz word during Wednesday night’s Republican debates in Mesa, Arizona — a hot-button topic that brought to the fore political and gender differences on the debate over contraception.
CNN moderator John King barely finished reading a submitted question about the candidates' stance on birth control when the audience booed. The debaters echoed the audience's sour mood on the topic.
"The bottom line is we have a problem in this country, and the family is fracturing," former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said during the debate of concerns about what he sees as eroding family values. "And someone has got to go out there — I will — and talk about those things."
Each of the four Republican contenders largely sidestepped directly answering a question on their stances on birth control and instead criticized President Obama for his administration’s move to have health insurers cover contraception for religious institution employees."
I don’t think we’ve seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we’ve seen under Barack Obama," said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
But political experts say the GOP presidential hopefuls will have to navigate the culture wars carefully if they want to avoid alienating moderate women voters. A recent poll by Quinnipiac University showed that 54 percent of Americans approve and 38 percent disapprove of the president’s compromise on health insurance coverage for employees of religious institutions seeking birth control.
Women approved the president’s move 56 to 36 percent, the poll showed.
"Women make up over half of the voters, so there’s a broad spectrum of what women care about. But Republicans should be concerned about moderate women in suburban areas who might be turned off by a perception that the Republican Party is focused on social issues," said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, a non-partisan political publication based in Washington D.C.
Santorum’s previous statements in interviews about birth control and the "dangers" of contraception have drawn fire. Wednesday’s NBC/Marist poll had Romney and Santorum in a statistical dead heat among Michigan’s likely primary voters.
As Super Tuesday looms and Santorum whittles away at Romney’s perceived lead, the former Pennsylvania senator will likely face intensified scrutiny from female voters in particular about his stances on family planning. In fact, Santorum’s very presence in the race may be fueling the birth control debate, said Larry Sabato, a political expert with the University of Virginia.
"It stems from the fact that a large portion of the Republicans Party is made up of social conservatives," Sabato said. "They have a representative on that stage now in Rick Santorum who is a conservative. It’s a hot-button issue. People’s ears perk up."