MILFORD, N.H. — In an election that's supposed to hinge on jobs and the economy, the Republican presidential contest in recent months has been defined by almost everything else.
Immigration and children's vaccines. Race and religion. Homosexuality and health care. The issues range far from the economic woes that concern most voters, but they have captivated Republicans in New Hampshire and other early voting states, providing the candidates with ways to distinguish themselves from their rivals. The biggest applause lines on the campaign trail usually have little to do with a candidate's economic positions.
The dynamic was on display Monday, even as the contenders prepared for a Tuesday night debate focused solely on the economy.
"Even the richest man can't buy back his past," intoned a web video that Texas Gov. Rick Perry rolled out to assail chief rival Mitt Romney's personal wealth and the Massachusetts health care overhaul that Romney signed into law. "America's most damaging prescription: RomneyCare," the video said.
Romney mentioned it during a town hall-style meeting here and suggested that his opponents would use any issue they could to tear him down.
A few minutes earlier, Romney had jabbed Perry on immigration.
"If you're an illegal — an illegal — in Texas and you've lived there for three years, you can go to college there and get a $100,000 break on your tuition. These magnets have got to stop," Romney said. A packed VFW hall cheered the knock at Perry's support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.
Less than three months before the first voting of the GOP nomination fight, the candidates are raising a host of issues that don't speak directly to addressing the nation's 9.1 percent unemployment rate or the frail economy. They do talk about jobs and the economy to varying degrees. But few — if any — have talked in specifics, preferring to stick to general Republican orthodoxy of lower taxes, less spending and rolled-back regulations as a way to fix what ails the country. They differ little on prescriptions.
The man they hope to oust from the White House, President Barack Obama, has focused much more on the economy. On Tuesday, he will be talking about jobs in Pittsburgh, and on Friday he will travel to a suburban Detroit auto plant — with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who's in the U.S. for a visit expected to focus on trade.
Only a few of the Republicans — Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman among them — have rolled out plans aimed at stimulating growth in a country that some fear is teetering on the edge of a double-dip recession. Perry, who joined the race in mid-August, plans to announce his economic plan this fall. Businessman Herman Cain has spelled out a tax reform plan.
The campaigns argue that the nation's economic woes are directly linked to such issues as immigration and health care. And they note that voters will ask the questions they want — even if they stray from what they tell pollsters are their top issues.
Indeed, Romney opened his Monday event by talking about the economy, a centerpiece of his campaign for much of the summer, but an hour later he had answered far more questions about health care, illegal immigration and labor unions.
The lack of economic focus caught the attention of at least one participant, 53-year-old Leen Intveld, from nearby Brookline.
"I was surprised," said Intveld, an independent voter attending his first town hall meeting who plans to vote for Romney in the Republican primary. "I'm worried about the economy. That's the top issue for me."
For most others, too, it seems.
A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found 97 percent of Republicans saying the economy is extremely or very important, similar to the share of Democrats calling it that important. But Republicans give more attention to other issues — immigration, abortion and a candidate's religion — than Democrats and independents do, which could explain why the GOP race sometimes seems focused on issues other than the economy.
The absence of debate over the economy is perhaps most apparent in the increasingly contentious relationship between the GOP front-runners. Romney has slammed Perry on his position on Social Security and illegal immigration. Perry has castigated Romney over health care and changed positions on social issues.
Race and religion also have emerged.
Perry was forced to defend himself after a report that a hunting camp once leased by the family had a racially offensive name. Perry has agreed the name was offensive, and he said that after he saw it painted on a rock outside of the camp in the early 1980s the word was painted over.
Over the weekend, Baptist minister Robert Jeffress — who has endorsed Perry — created a stir when he introduced the governor at a conservative gathering in Washington and later told reporters that Romney's faith — Mormonism — is a "cult."
"It's nonsense" and a "political distraction," Huntsman, also a Mormon, said in Tilton, N.H., when he was asked to weigh in. "During a time when we're at war abroad — we've never had the number of problems and challenges we've had — for the dialogue to be taken in that direction, it's just nonsensical."
On other matters, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann faced sharp criticism over the summer when reports suggested her husband's clinic helped counsel clients to "cure" homosexuality. And as her campaign has progressed, she has frequently highlighted her socially conservative positions.
"We all understand that the No. 1 issue that people will be voting on in this election will be the economy and jobs," Bachmann said last week in Iowa. "But in the midst of this, we can't forget the issue of the protection of the most innocent and vulnerable among us — and that's the unborn."
Her audiences have not pushed her focus on the economy.
While she took part in New England College's "Econ-101 Town Hall" series in Henniker, N.H, on Monday only three of the 10 questions she was asked touched on the economy or financial issues. Instead, topics ranged from Social Security and Medicare to getting youth involved in politics and her favorite novel. (Anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald, she said.)
"As much as this election is about jobs and the economy — and it is — I'd say that I'm probably far more concerned about the threats that are facing the United States from around the world. I'm probably more concerned about that than I am about the economic threat we're facing right now," she said.
The questions Tuesday night in the debate at Dartmouth College are expected to focus heavily on the economy. The candidates will have little choice but to do the same.
Holly Ramer in Henniker, N.H., and Philip Elliott in Tilton, N.H., contributed to this report.
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