The three major candidates for U.S. Senate in this month's Republican primary turned their attention to social issues Monday at a debate in Eagle River hosted by the local conservative Christian group Alaska Family Action.

Senate hopefuls Joe Miller, Mead Treadwell and Dan Sullivan each made their case to a crowd of nearly 200 people, arguing why their conservative views on gay marriage, abortion and health care were most deserving of support in the Aug. 19 GOP primary -- even as Democrats simultaneously launched attacks arguing that those views would be out of touch with the voters in November's general election.

Both sides see those views as a winning issue.

The campaign of Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Begich debuted a website last week contrasting Begich's positions on abortion, access to contraception and privacy rights with the stances of his three Republicans opponents, with a spokesman adding Monday that "Sen. Begich shares the opinion of a majority of Alaskans."

After Monday's debate, an Alaska Family Action lobbyist who helped moderate the debate responded: "I think it's going to become very clear that the Republican nominee's position, whoever that is, is likely going to be far more close to the mainstream than Sen. Begich."

"There just hasn't been a lot of discussion about that yet. But there will be," the lobbyist, Michael Pauley, said in an interview.

The debate took place at an Eagle River church, where the candidates sat in leather easy chairs below a 10-foot-tall wooden cross and stood to answer questions.

Prior to the event, Alaska Family Action had distributed an 18-question survey to the Miller, Treadwell and Sullivan campaigns with sections on abortion, gay marriage and health care.

The three Republican candidates answered the survey's 17 yes-or-no questions identically. Among their responses:

• Each supports overturning the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade that established a legal right to abortion.

• Each supports a proposed federal law banning most abortions at 20 weeks after fertilization -- the point at which supporters say unborn children can feel pain during the procedure.

• They support banning federal funding for stem-cell research that leads to the destruction of human embryos, which supporters say is necessary for fighting diseases.

• They support a constitutional amendment to define marriage as being between one man and one woman, and prohibiting any state constitutions from requiring recognition of other types of unions.

• Each supports the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, which would prevent the federal government from taking legal action against organizations that have a religious or moral belief that marriage is only between one man and one woman -- organizations that otherwise could be at risk of denial or revocation of tax-exempt status.

Stances on abortion

The candidates' one area of difference was in their answers to the survey's third question, which asked about the circumstances in which abortion should be permitted.

Miller, who has defined himself as the farthest-right candidate in the Republican race, responded that he is "100 percent pro-life."

"Every life is sacred," his survey response reads. "We should save every life we can."

Treadwell said abortion should be barred except "in the rare circumstances that the mother and child will die if the pregnancy continues and all other possible means to save the mother and child have been exhausted."

Sullivan said abortion should be illegal except when the mother's life is in danger, or if a pregnancy resulted from a case of rape or incest -- though at the debate, he cautiously reminded the largely pro-life audience his view that those exceptions would occur only in "very, very difficult circumstances, horrendous circumstances, in very, very rare circumstances."

"That does not mean that I'm supportive of abortions in those situations," Sullivan said. "But because they're so, such horrendous situations, in support for the victim in those kind of situations of rape or incest, it's also important from my perspective, that's something where the family should be making the decision on."

Treadwell and Miller at turns described abortion in the case of rape or incest as punishing an innocent child.

The Republicans' opponents have seized on positions like those. The Alaska Democratic Party issued a statement after Monday's debate quoting Executive Director Kay Brown as saying: "If it was the goal of Treadwell, Miller, and Sullivan to alienate Alaska women today, then they succeeded."

Democrats and their supporters across the country are highlighting social issues in this year's midterm elections, which they argue is an area where their opponents' views diverge from most voters.

Those groups couldn't point to recent state-specific public opinion research, but a 2009 poll found that 58 percent of likely Alaska voters believe abortion should be "generally available" or legal in many circumstances. Even Tom Minnery, the other moderator at the debate, acknowledged that Treadwell's and Miller's views on abortion "go way beyond what the law has allowed since Roe v. Wade," and asked both of them: "How in the world do we get there?"

"How do we make those views reality given the political makeup of the Senate, and the House for that matter?" asked Minnery, the second-cousin of Alaska Family Action President Jim Minnery.

The political arm of Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit organization that provides reproductive health services, has been running digital ads that attack Sullivan, the GOP front-runner, for his support of the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision.

Planned Parenthood's northwest branch has also tried to pin Sullivan down on his position on a bill that would establish that life begins at conception. A spokesman for Sullivan's campaign did not respond to a question about his stance on the bill.

Begich earlier this year joined with two other Democratic senators in tough re-election fights to sponsor legislation overturning the Supreme Court's recent decision in the Hobby Lobby case, which said some private businesses could decline to provide certain contraceptives to workers as part of health insurance plans -- though the legislation failed.

Begich's own views on social issues are laid out in the website his campaign launched last week, which is being promoted on Facebook, Pandora and other websites.

The site says Begich "supports a woman's right to make her own medical decisions." Asked about Begich's stance on abortion, campaign manager Susanne Fleek-Green said in an email statement that the senator "supports choice and respects the ability for Alaska women to make their own informed decisions."

Begich has also endorsed gay marriage, though that position is not highlighted in the new campaign website.

The site contrasts Begich's positions with Sullivan's and Treadwell's, saying the two Republicans "have worked against the interests of Alaska women."

Sullivan spokesman Mike Anderson responded in an email: "We're not going to respond to an attack site that's clearly just designed to distort Dan's record and drag him through the mud."

"Dan addressed the full range of social issues at today's debate, and he looks forward to continuing open, thoughtful discussions with all Alaskans," he said.

Treadwell, in an interview, said his views had been inaccurately portrayed by Begich's website. He added: "Mr. Begich would have been welcome at today's social issues debate."

"We might have learned what he's done to protect the unborn," Treadwell said.