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By Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times

In its swiftness and brute force, Republican opposition to the Arizona measure that would have bolstered the right to deny services to gays sent one message to GOP Gov. Jan Brewer: Veto it.

And it sent another to everyone else in the Republican Party: Keep your eyes on the ball.

On the cusp of what the GOP hopes will be a November takeover of both houses of Congress, and the start of a 2016 presidential contest that it hopes will end with the White House in its embrace, party leaders appear to have shifted strategy: Instead of ignoring deviations from Republicans’ strong suit, they will try to quash them.

Social issues, particularly ones that draw the wrath of much of the public, are out, at least for the business wing of the party. Jobs, forever the focus of voters, are in.

“Most people agree that 2014 offers an outstanding opportunity to take back the Senate, but with that opportunity we’ve got to continue to focus the party message on things that are helpful,” said Dave Kochel, a veteran party strategist in Iowa. “There is a pretty strong consensus that this isn’t one of the things that we need to spend time and energy on.”

The demand for Republicans, he said, is “to focus on what people are focused on, which is jobs, health care, a lot of other issues that rise a lot higher in people’s minds than this.”

Such laser-like discipline has evaded Republicans of late. In the last week alone, one Senate candidate in Kansas came under fire for posting X-rays of shooting victims on his Facebook page. A Virginia state senator declared that pregnant women served as the “child’s host.” A Senate candidate from Texas gained attention for using slurs against Latinos and President Barack Obama.

Individually, those can be ascribed to bad candidates. Together, the drumbeat threatens the public image of a party that faces mid- and long-term struggles even as it finds itself in an advantageous position this year.

The party’s image problems are acute because the views of its leaders and most activist elements of its base run counter to the nation as a whole on a host of issues — particularly when it comes to younger voters whose positions are far more liberal. That makes it easier for Democrats to create their own negative image of Republicans, as they have by claiming that the party is engaged in a “war on women” and, most recently, in gibes against backers of the Arizona measure.

A New York Times/CBS News poll published Thursday demonstrated the long-term threat. On a host of issues that Democrats have pressed as they try to define Republicans, the GOP is wholly out of step with Americans overall.

Americans supported same-sex marriage by a 17-point margin, and backed stricter gun laws, legal use of marijuana and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. By a 2-1 margin, they favored an increase in the minimum wage. All are issues on which Republican leaders and party activists hold the opposite view.

But the poll also reinforced the view of Republican strategists that the path forward runs through rocky economic ground. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed said the country was on the wrong track, a traditional marker for views on the economy. Almost 6 in 10 disapproved of the way Obama has handled the economy. (Obama’s approval rating stood at 41 percent, his lowest in two years.)

That suggests a unity of thought on the economy that Republicans can use to their advantage in November and beyond. And that is a key reason for keeping their focus tightly drawn.

For that, Arizona served as a template. Both of the state’s senators — Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake — came out against the measure, as did the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. Business leaders, many of them traditionally supportive of Republicans, also sought to elbow the measure aside.

In vetoing it, Brewer suggested that it ran counter to Arizona’s efforts to attract business and said that it “could result in unintended and negative consequences.” She did not say whether she meant to businesses or to Arizona’s reputation, though it certainly was to both.

That said, it is not clear whether this particular measure fully engaged the party’s cultural conservative wing, which no Republican with upward aspirations willingly offends. That party element provides much of the Republican fervor, especially in non-presidential years like this one.

Like Iowa’s Kochel, GOP strategist Reed Galen said the Arizona measure appeared to be a solution in search of a problem — and ended up giving the economic wing of the party a chance to flex its muscle.

“It showed … the moderate and social libertarian wing of the Republican Party finding its voice and saying we’re not just going to sit by while those measures [are passed that] provide a much harder environment for us to compete nationally,” the Orange County, Calif.-based Galen said. “It was a win for the — I’ll call it the fiscally conservative, socially respectful wing.”

Jon Matthies via Flickr

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