The Republican presidential contest has been frustrating for social conservatives. Although they are the GOP's largest single constituency, they so far lack a viable 2008 candidate. Whenever a top-tier candidate presents himself as a more conservative alternative to Rudy Giuliani or John McCain, disturbing news soon emerges about his past record.
Are things looking up after the Ames straw poll? Not only was Mitt Romney, the declared top-tier candidate who has been doing the most to court social conservatives, the winner. Two bona fide religious conservatives finished alongside him in the top three. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's second place finish was a surprise. In third place was Sen. Sam Brownback, whose strong showing was expected.
Rounding out the top five was Congressman Tom Tancredo, a strong social conservative, and Congressman Ron Paul, who actually spent more time in his Ames speech talking about his pro-life views than his antiwar stance. The results are already giving the tolerant sorts who worry about America transforming into "Jesusland" the vapors.
At the very least, Huckabee may now be in a better position to apply social-issues pressure on the frontrunners from the right. The former Baptist preacher's supporters hope he will even be able to break into the first tier. But is it good for the religious right?
Probably not. While he is definitely more appealing -- and potentially less threatening to secular voters -- than such past Christian right standard bearers as Pat Robertson and Gary Bauer, Huckabee would bifurcate economic and social conservatives. His tax increases as governor of Arkansas have made him as popular with the Club for Growth as Ron Paul is with the Victory Caucus. Huckabee recently told radio talk show host Jay Mickelson that the Club was "full of oatmeal" (though he presumably was thinking of a byproduct of such high-fiber food).
Disputes over Arkansas tax policy aside, Huckabee and Brownback (who has generally received high marks from the Club for Growth) have often tied their moral traditionalism to a faith in activist government that is -- or should be -- unusual for conservatives. Their occasional insinuations that there is a necessary connection between being pro-life and backing increased funding for programs like No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug benefit could help convert fusionists into "liberaltarians."
Secondly, the social conservatives in the race have been ignoring the pro-choice, pro-civil unions frontrunner and instead cannibalizing each other. Brownback's campaign has been assailing Tancredo for accepting money from John Tanton, a prominent pro-abortion immigration restrictionist. But Tancredo voted with the National Right to Life Committee 100 percent of the time in 2005-06, while he never sided with Planned Parenthood once. Brownback and Huckabee supporters have been trying to drive wedges between Catholics and evangelicals, though the campaigns haven't been involved.
Even the attacks on Romney's abortion flip-flops are reaching the point of diminishing returns. The former Massachusetts governor's pro-choice past remains relevant to evaluating his overall credibility. But as Romney flirts with the human life amendment, it is hard to envision him ever becoming a credible supporter of legal abortion again. He may no longer be the best target of pro-life ire, even if he remains the most convenient.
The splintered social conservative vote has helped Giuliani defy the conventional wisdom and remain atop the GOP field without gravitating any further to the right on issues like abortion than Arlen Specter. Religious conservatives have two options: Co-opt Giuliani or defeat him. At this point, they have done neither.
Right now, all the social conservatives combined capture a majority of the Republican vote. But until that majority coalesces around a single candidate, the GOP is likely to nominate a social liberal.
Maybe Giuliani came out of Ames in better shape than the vote tally would indicate.
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