Republican presidential candidates (L-R) former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) place their hands over their hearts during the playing of the national anthem before a debate at the North Charleston Coliseum January 19, 2012 in Charleston, South Carolina.
In this turbulent 2012 GOP presidential primary, small government social conservatives – deemed Teavangelicals by David Brody - are still kingmakers in the Republican party. The only difference this year from years past is that we are three states into the Republican nomination contest and there is no consensus candidate among conservatives.
Thus far we have had three votes (one caucus and two primaries) and three different winners. Social conservatives picked the winner in all three contests.
In Iowa, Teavangelicals broke for Santorum by 10-15 points. In New Hampshire, this same voting block went heavily for Romney. Romney had a five percent advantage among strong social conservatives, an eight-point advantage among evangelicals, and a fifteen-point advantage among those who “strongly” support the Tea Party. In South Carolina, Teavangelicals broke for Gingrich by a two to one margin.
The question on nearly everyone’s mind, both Republicans and Democrats, is whether Florida will be the tiebreaker and establish who is the conservative candidate.
It almost certainly will not be Ron Paul’s opportunity to continue the deadlock as he has announced that he will not contest the Florida primary.
The issues conservatives care about are front and center on the minds of the candidates and the voters in Florida. In the last Florida debate, the candidates were asked about taxes, bank bailouts, illegal immigration, and even Terri Schiavo.
As this week marks the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the GOP candidates did not miss an opportunity to make the case that each is the most pro-life candidate. Mitt Romney said in a statement that, “Today marks the 39th anniversary of one of the darkest moments in Supreme Court history, when the court in Roe v. Wade claimed authority over the fundamental question regarding the rights of the unborn. The result is millions of lives since that day have been tragically silenced.” Newt Gingrich vowed to, “defund Planned Parenthood so that no taxpayer dollars are being used to fund abortions.” Rick Santorum noted, “President Obama’s record of support for abortion is radical and extreme.”
Each candidate is making the case that they are the true conservative.
One thing is clear: Regardless of what the polls may say today, conservatives are waiting until the last minute, almost literally, before making their decision.
Which brings us back to our original question: Will Florida establish who the conservative candidate is in the GOP race?
The problem with this question is the same problem that the candidates have faced after each primary. The question should not be so much who will win Florida, but will the winner be able to turn that win into momentum in the next several contests ahead of Super Tuesday (March 6)?
No candidate thus far has been able to do that. Only Romney has consistently placed in the top two. No other candidate has even consistently placed in the top three. Until a candidate can amass a string of victories, the race will go on.
For the first time, places like Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona, Michigan, and Washington will really matter in selecting the GOP nominee.
As conservatives, this means more opportunities to make the conservative case against President Obama’s failed liberal policies to the American people. It means having contested races and media attention in states that will be critical to winning in November. As Romney said, “We’re now three contests into a long primary season. This is a hard fight because there’s so much worth fighting for . . . I don’t shrink from competition. I embrace it. I believe competition makes us all better.”
It is this competition that conservatives believe will strengthen our message, our resolve, and our candidate.
Jordan Sekulow is Executive Director of the American Center for Law & Justice and writes for On Faith’s blogging network at the Washington Post. Matthew Clark is an attorney for the ACLJ.