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Despite calls to revamp, GOP leaders still push hot-button social issues

In the midst of their effort to broaden the party’s appeal, Republican leaders continue to engage – sometimes forcefully – on social issues that have sometimes turned off key voting blocs in the past.

The Republican National Committee’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” report issued last month recommended that the party be more “inclusive and welcoming,” warning that doing otherwise would “limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues.”

But Republican leaders – who face pressure from the party’s Christian conservative base to hold the line on social issues – have hardly disengaged from social issues.

A roundtable of experts on Meet the Press examines the debates over abortion and gay marriage and their role in the Republican political landscape.

Look no further than Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor this fall in his state, who last week asked a full federal appeals court to overturn a three-judge panel’s ruling that Virginia’s anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional.

Cuccinelli’s decision to appeal appears to be related to preserving state laws against sex with minors, but it has the effect of asking the courts to uphold all of Virginia’s anti-sodomy statutes. To that end, the appeal has been characterized by Cuccinelli detractors as an effort to keep laws against gay sex on Virginia’s books.

A spokeswoman for the Virginia attorney general's office insists that the move is about protecting kids from sexual predators. "This case is not about sexual orientation, but using current law to protect a 17-year-old girl from a 47-year-old sexual predator," said Caroline Gibson.

“Ken Cuccinelli continues to ignore the economy and instead focus on a divisive ideological agenda,” wrote Josh Schwerin, a spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, on Twitter.

Cuccinelli’s appeal, though, is symptomatic of how Republicans have been drawn into social issues, and often to their peril.

Another example came on Wednesday as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who commissioned the inclusivity-seeking Growth and Opportunity Project, took to the conservative blog RedState to complain that the mainstream media had mischaracterized abortion laws in North Dakota and Florida.

Priebus argued that the media had unfairly maligned conservatives in their coverage of the laws, which (respectively) sought to ban abortion after a heartbeat is detected, and provide medical coverage to a newborn from a failed abortion.

Moreover, Priebus launched into an attack on Planned Parenthood – a standby criticism of the last Republican presidential campaign – accusing it of supporting “infanticide,” and demanding that Democrats answer for their support for the organization.

Steve Helber / Steve Helber / AP file photo

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli last week asked a full federal appeals court to overturn a three-judge panel's ruling that Virginia's anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional.

“In the last election, Republicans were repeatedly asked about whether they supported cutting funding to Planned Parenthood. It’s time Democrats are asked whether they still support funding an organization that refuses to care for a newborn,” Priebus wrote. “And this case of blatant media bias — cover-up really — should also be cause for some thoughtful self-examination among journalists.”

These strong stances by Cuccinelli and Priebus come amid the overarching GOP effort to broaden the party’s support among Latinos, young voters and women. The GOP report acknowledges at several points the role played by harsh rhetoric on social issues like gay rights in exacerbating the party’s deficit among those groups.

And a new poll released on Wednesday showed that there’s still work to be done. On the question of overall party images, and which party cares more about the average American, Democrats enjoy an advantage over Republicans among women.

Twenty-five percent of women said they had a favorable view of the GOP in the Quinnipiac University poll, versus 42 women who said they had a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party. Fifty-three percent of women had a negative opinion of the Republican Party, versus 38 percent of women who said they had a negative impression of the Democratic Party.

Women also favored Democrats on the matter of which party better cared for needs and problems of people like them. Women respondents agreed, 59 percent to 38 percent, that Democrats cared for their needs and concerns; 35 percent of women said that Republicans cared for their needs and concerns, versus 60 percent of women who disagreed.

More broadly, Democrats also enjoy an advantage over Republicans on the question of which party better handles the issue of same-sex marriage. Forty-nine percent of all Americans said that Democrats do a better job, versus 28 percent who prefer Republicans. Independents favor Democrats, 48 percent to 26 percent, on that question, and even one in five Republicans — 21 percent — prefer Democrats’ handling of the issue of same-sex marriage. 

NBC's Kasie Hunt contributed to this report.

Related:

Top Va. Republican urges court to keep anti-sodomy law on the books

Surprising shifts in attitudes on same-sex marriage

North Dakota governor signs toughest anti-abortion package in US

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