In the run-up to the Republican presidential contest that began a gracious 30 seconds after President Barack Obama was elected, we have heard much about Republican "values voters." The habits and preferences of these elusive creatures have been analyzed with the same avidity hunters show in discussing deer and elk.

"Values voters are easily spooked, Brad, so the candidate who captures them must avoid bright colors, multiple marriages and attempts at humor that do not target Nancy Pelosi."

But now the delegates are flying, and the values voters can't be found. That's because cultural stands are luxury issues -- very, very important to conservatives when bellies and 401(k)s are full, but an afterthought when home values and hopes for the future plummet.

And now such concerns are irrelevant, because none of the remaining candidates would appeal to the culture warriors who dominated the GOP when ending sinning was still high on their priority list.

Romney's opposition to abortion and support for guns hasn't fooled anyone, dating as it does from the moment he decided to run for president. Gingrich is many (so, so many) things, but "Beacon of Morality" isn't one of them. Ron Paul thinks government should stay out of our business, not exactly the evangelical siren song. And Rick Santorum, who appears to kind of oppose contraception for married people and says rape victims should think of the babies conceived during their assault as "gifts from God," makes even the average values voter think, "That man needs to put some Sinatra on the hi-fi and pop a cold one before his head blows out of his sweater vest."

There were candidates who normally would have attracted social conservatives: Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Bachmann, so in-your-face Christian that a win by her likely would have led to a "Jesus is My Running Mate," bumper sticker, got sent home so fast she made the presidential campaigns of Pat Paulsen look serious. Perry had money and sizzle but faltered when voters saw he speaks English as a second language, yet has no native tongue.

Both, though they possess the longest shortcomings imaginable, also sport legitimate resumes. Either would have garnered a lot more success in a year when voters really cared about making people act right.

Polls at last week's South Carolina primary showed 8 percent of voters named abortion as their top priority. At the New Hampshire polls, it was 6 percent. At one time, abortion was a pre-eminent issue for conservatives, but now talk around evangelical dinner tables goes more like this:

Husband: "What we need is a president who can restore the moral fiber of this nation."

Wife: "No, we need food, gas under $4.00 a gallon, a buyer for this freakin' house and a shred of hope that our kids' pay -- if they ever find work -- won't go entirely to the Chinese people who hold the mortgage on the White House."

Husband: "OK, but once we nail that down, I'm getting back on the moral fiber thing."

Voting based on social conservatism is a luxury because it's about others. Folks who oppose gay marriage mostly aren't gay. Those who would criminalize abortion don't think, "We need to recognize the sanctity of life so I can stop having abortions." And people who want pot smokers locked up aren't using that as an innovative way to give up weed. Only when things are good do we focus on the sins, and in fact, the needs, of others.

The larder is empty and, the future is iffy. Traditional social conservatives couldn't draw flies this year, but voters will hop back on the "moral fiber thing" when good times return.

It's almost enough to make you root for the recession.


Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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