Just when the 2012 presidential election appeared to be all about the economy and jobs, social issues have emerged once again as preeminent and polarizing, much as they were during the “abortion wars” of the 1990s. And while some Republican hopefuls may have tried to steer clear of sticky topics like abortion rights, gay marriage and access to free or affordable birth control, the rising tide of public interest in these issues has forced candidates to make their positions clear.

Several recent events have put social issues in the headlines, and by doing so, thrust them into the ongoing election rhetoric.

• A federal appeals court overturned California’s Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage, to the cheers of gay rights supporters around the country. Opponents of the decision argued that activist judges were going against the will of voters, who passed Proposition 8 in 2008.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, seated, raises her arms as legislators and supporters cheer behind her after she signed into law a measure that legalizes same-sex marriage Monday, Feb. 13, 2012, in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The Washington legislature voted to legalize gay marriage in the state, and Governor Chris Gregoire (D) signed the legislation. In New Jersey, both houses of the state legislature voted to legalize gay marriage, but Gov. Chris Christie(R) has vowed to veto the measure.

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer foundation decided to cancel $680,000 a year in funding for a low/no-cost mammogram service offered by Planned Parenthood, because the latter is also an abortion provider. Public outcry, particularly in social media, was so intense that Komen reversed its decision.

The White House ruled that all institutions, including Catholic-run hospitals and schools, must include contraception coverage in their employee health-care plans, even though the Catholic Church opposes artificial contraception. After critics called this an assault on religion, the White House amended the decision to require instead that insurance companies pay for this coverage.

President Barack Obama concludes his remarks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 10, 2012, where he announced the revamp of his contraception policy requiring religious institutions to fully pay for birth control. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Nationwide, these events are setting up a showdown, both in upcoming presidential debates and all the way to the November election. There is little middle ground for a candidate to tread; in order to gain the support of party loyalists, his (there are no female presidential candidates this election cycle) position must be clear on each of these issues.

President Barack Obama has consistently supported a woman’s right to legal abortion and mandatory insurance coverage of birth control. And while he has pleased the GLBT community with his elimination of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule for US servicemen and women, his inaction on a national measure in support of gay marriage has left many disappointed.

Per a recent White House press conference, the President’s position on gay marriage is “still evolving,” and he has indicated before that he is content to let states decide who should be allowed to marry within their borders. But the national debate may dictate that Obama come out more clearly on one side of the fence or the other

• With the above-mentioned events of recent weeks, the remaining viable Republican contenders, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, have all declared their opposition to gay marriage and virtually all legal abortions. All spoke out against Obama’s healthcare/contraception mandate.

So, the battle lines are drawn for November. Ultimately, the election may be won or lost over economic recovery and jobs creation. But in debates and stump speeches, candidates are going to be called upon to stick their necks out and defend their positions on these tough social issues.

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