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The GOP's baffling confusion on social issues

The 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls seem more confused than ever over how to integrate social issues into their fledgling campaigns.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal speaks to guests gathered at the Point of Grace Church for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition 2015 Spring Kickoff on April 25, 2015 in Waukee, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal speaks to guests gathered at the Point of Grace Church for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition 2015 Spring Kickoff on April 25, 2015 in Waukee, Iowa.

Torn between competing factions of a restive GOP base, the 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls seem more confused than ever over how to integrate social issues into their fledgling campaigns.

While some, like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, are clearly planning to run as culture warriors, others, like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, are trying to shift the focus toward other areas, like the economy. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, seem to be waffling between playing to the Republican Party’s conservative Christian base and appealing to a broader set of voters. Both Cruz and Bush flipped their own scripts in the last week, with Cruz, a staunch supporter of so-called “traditional marriage,” demanding to be asked about something other than gay rights, and Bush abandoning his “respect everyone” stance on marriage equality in favor of a strong endorsement of religious freedom.

“A whole third of the GOP coalition is wrong in most Americans’ minds. It’s really hard to run a winning campaign on that.”'

This lack of consensus over how to address social issues speaks to a couple of problems facing the emerging GOP presidential field. One is how to reconcile the values of the party’s primary voters -- who tend to be older, whiter, and more religious -- with those of an increasingly diverse and tolerant general electorate. And the other is how to pull ahead in a crowded pack of plausible GOP contenders, a group currently without a front-runner in sight.

“With such a wide field, different people have to ask themselves, ‘OK, how do I break though?’” said conservative consultant Keith Appell, whose firm was recently hired by former Hewlett-Packard CEO and Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s Super PAC. Appell spoke with msnbc on his own behalf and not for the Super PAC.

“It isn’t a shock to me or probably anyone else that different candidates are trying different avenues,” Appell continued. “Ultimately, though, when it comes time for voters in primary states to vote, they’re going to find most choices lining up the same across the board on social issues.”

Whether or not they actually differ substantively on the issues, social or otherwise, Republicans are still clearly playing with the rhetorical formula for success. One thing has become plainly apparent, though: If it were up to Jindal, social issues would be the main ingredient.

RELATED: Gov. Bobby Jindal resurrects Louisiana's religious freedom bill

The Louisiana governor took a big step forward this week in his effort to position himself as the “religious freedom” candidate, announcing on Tuesday that he would sign an executive order to prevent the state from taking action against individuals and businesses with “deeply held” religious objections to same-sex marriage. The move came one day after Jindal launched an exploratory committee ahead of an expected White House run, and just hours after state lawmakers effectively killed a religious freedom bill that would have enacted many of the same provisions.

Critics saw the proposed Louisiana bill as part of a widespread effort in red states to roll back the recent advancements of the LGBT equality movement -- chiefly, same-sex marriage -- and potentially sanction discrimination on religious grounds. But to Jindal, the bill represented a major pillar of his forthcoming presidential platform. By signing an executive order to implement the failed legislation, Jindal essentially made his first act a presidential contender the most aggressive one seen yet on behalf of religious freedom.

“I think candidates who start to articulate a clear position on that issue and speak to voters directly are going to get noticed and are going to benefit,” Appell said. “Certainly, [Jindal] has seized that opportunity.”

To be clear, none of the potential or already-announced Republican presidential candidates has ever had an unkind word to say about religious freedom. The closest thing was when Bush told attendees at a fundraiser in Silicon Valley last month that Indiana lawmakers could have taken “a better approach” to ensuring that their state’s controversial religion freedom measure didn’t allow for discrimination based on sexual orientation. But Bush, following a disastrous run of fumbled responses to the Iraq War last week, has since said that religious business owners “absolutely” should be able to deny services to same-sex couples on their wedding days -- remarks that shifted considerably in tone from his earlier, more neutral statements on gay rights, and seemed to mark a shift in strategy as well from his “lose the primary to win the general” advice to Republicans.

RELATED: The more troubling thing Jeb said about gay rights

As a sitting governor, Jindal is uniquely positioned to take action on behalf of religious freedom in a way few of his potential primary challengers can. While former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and now, Bush, can talk about the importance of religious freedom protections in the face of ever-expanding marriage rights for same-sex couples, they currently hold no political power to actually do anything about it. Jindal has real power, and he’s not afraid to use it.

Political limitations aside, however, some Republican hopefuls still seem uneasy over how much to stress social issues like religious freedom, gay rights, or legal abortion. At an event in Philadelphia this week, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul shied away from a question about reproductive rights, telling reporters that he “didn’t run for office because of this issue.”

“ISIS is executing homosexuals — you want to talk about gay rights?"'

“It wasn’t what got me to leave my practice,” Paul, an opthamologist, said. “I ran for office mainly because I became concerned that we’re going to destroy the country with debt.”

In a surprising move, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz this week also backed away from a question about gay rights, despite being one of the GOP’s most vocal opponents of marriage equality.

“Is there something about the left — and I am going to put the media in this category — that is obsessed with sex?” Cruz asked after taking multiple questions about gay rights at an event in Beaumont, according to The Texas Tribune. “ISIS is executing homosexuals — you want to talk about gay rights? This week was a very bad week for gay rights because the expansion of ISIS, the expansion of radical, theocratic, Islamic zealots that crucify Christians, that behead children and that murder homosexuals — that ought to be concerning you far more than asking six questions all on the same topic.”

The outburst was surprising, giving the fact that Cruz has so far framed his campaign around appealing to evangelical voters. In March, the Texas senator announced his presidential ambitions at Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian college. He has also more than once warned about the impending doom of “mandatory gay marriage” -- a phrase that incorrectly suggests every American will soon be forced to marry a same-sex partner.

Appell said he believes Cruz and Paul’s reluctance to take questions on social issues this week has to do with the perception that the media treats Republicans unfairly in this area. But there is perhaps another element at play: poll numbers. When considering the fact that 60% of Americans now favor same-sex marriage, according to Gallup, or that most voters consider social issues to be relatively unimportant, according to the Associated Press-GfK, Cruz’s frustration with having to repeatedly and so forcefully stand in the minority starts make a bit more sense.

“Ted Cruz is a smart guy and he knows he’s wrong,” said Jimmy LaSalvia, political strategist and author of the forthcoming book, “No Hope: Why I Left the GOP (and You Should Too).”

“Fundamentally, the Republican party is built on an untenable coalition,” LaSalvia continued. “What was Ronald Reagan’s three-legged stool of economic conservatives, foreign policy conservatives and social conservatives has become a two-legged stool because the social conservative movement evolved almost exclusively into an anti-gay movement, and America’s determined that they’re wrong.”

“A whole third of the GOP coalition is wrong in most Americans’ minds,” LaSalvia stressed. “It’s really hard to run a winning campaign on that.”