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Republican presidential candidates Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. during their Republican debate, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa.
First it was Bachmann, then it was Cain, then Perry, then Cain again, and now Newt Gingrich has surged in the GOP primary field. Mitt Romney is the only candidate who has had poll-stability. In the beginning of the cycle, Romney was the nominal “front-runner” and his biggest slip has been from first to second place following the Newt-surge.
We know that social conservatives, who make up a large plurality of the GOP, have fueled each of these candidates’ surges to the top. But, why haven’t social conservatives found their candidate?
While there may not be one simple answer to this perplexing question, it is clear that social conservatives like aspects of each of the major candidates, but they have reservations about each as well.
Many social conservatives love where Bachmann is on the issues. She is pro-life, pro-marriage, and has vowed to repeal Obamacare. However, she has struggled to maintain widespread support because questions loom about whether she is prepared for the presidency and to take on President Obama. I still believe most of these “questions loom” because the media, and many Republicans, have been too tough on Bachmann even though she has delivered strong debate performances and won the Iowa straw poll. She is a top candidate to watch if caucus-goers in Iowa are looking for an alternative to Romney and Gingrich.
Rick Perry ignited a passion among conservatives when he first entered the race. He agreed with social conservatives on most issues, he was a longtime governor of a conservative state, and he was firmly committed to his faith and not afraid to express it. However, after a series of poor debate performances – both in substance, as he made controversial statements about immigration, and delivery, as he struggled to articulate his message – conservatives grew concerned as to whether he was ready to go up against Obama. Like Bachmann, he could still be an option for Iowa voters.
Initially, Herman Cain - and the 9-9-9 plan – was seen as a breath of fresh air, an outsider who could change the way Washington worked. Yet, conservatives began to question the workability of Cain’s tax plan, and the flood of sexual harassment allegations and then accusations about an extramarital affair eventually drowned out his message resulting in the suspension of his campaign.
Newt Gingrich is a skilled debater and a policy wonk, which many conservatives are taking a hard look at. However, he too has issues. Can conservatives trust him? His multiple marriages and divorces don’t sit well with social conservatives, and his rise and fall as speaker of the House provide ample fodder for his opponents.
Mitt Romney has not experienced the same surge other candidates have had in the national polls, but he has continued to be in the top tier and lead every poll in New Hampshire. Conservatives consider him an acceptable candidate in the general election, but continue their search for alternatives in the primary for a couple of reasons. First, Romney has yet to shed the “flip-flop” label among some conservative activists. Second, and though not discussed as openly among conservatives, are all of the reservation some Americans, not just evangelicals, have about Romney’s Mormon faith. If Governor Romney wins New Hampshire, regardless of the outcome in Iowa, he is the candidate best suited for a drawn-out primary battle and I suspect more conservatives will be drawn to publicly supporting his campaign.
In the end, conservatives want one thing: to beat President Obama and install a social conservative in the White House. The process of selecting a candidate can be long and painstaking. It is important to remember that Iowa isn’t the end; it is the beginning.
Republican voters may not settle on one candidate until long after the South Carolina primary.
With all that is at stake in our nation, it is well worth the time and effort it takes to find the right conservative candidate.