Santorum was the most aggressive in trying to establish political edge during the event, arguing that the president must be a cultural warrior pushing for social change that reflects the nation's Judeo-Christian heritage.
Despite the religious theme, the discussion nevertheless revealed deep divisions about the role of government in shaping the nation's culture, illustrated by the libertarian-leaning Paul's rejection of an activist presidency.
"The goal of government isn't to mold society and mold people," Paul said. "The goal of government is to preserve liberty."
There was little dissention, prompting Luntz to comment: "You have more that you agree on than those small things you disagree on."
Still, the candidates were looking for votes with only six weeks until the caucuses and no consensus choice for evangelical conservatives in Iowa.
A recent Des Moines Register poll showed 37 percent of likely GOP caucus participants described themselves as born-again Christians. They are an influential bloc, and rallied to oppose the retention of the three Iowa Supreme Court justices on the ballot a year ago after the court's unanimous 2009 decision to nullify the state's statutory ban on gay marriage.
Despite the trend in Iowa to stress the cultural issues, there has been little national focus on issues central to this committed segment of the GOP base, Santorum said. Of the 10 debates, there have been only five questions on cultural issues.
The crowded field of social conservatives has created somewhat of an opening for Romney in Iowa to stand out among economic conservatives. Last year, long-time former Gov. Terry Branstad won the nomination for governor over Vander Plaats, who campaigned largely on social issues.
Branstad said Iowa Republicans' greater concern with the economy and spending could be an advantage for Romney.
"I think it could potentially help him here," he said. "You need to address the issues Iowans care about, and that's restoring fiscal responsibility and jobs."
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