This year’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. this weekend could be a major turning point in the race for the GOP nomination for president. The summit couldn’t come at a more pivotal time, as the first caucus could be held as early as December – two and a half months from now. It will be the first time that ALL the major candidates will be speaking at the same event, and this audience, social conservatives, seems to be the one group that hasn’t settled on a candidate.
We say the first time because it is really just this week that the field has solidified. Many, especially the ‘Teavangelicals’ – the social conservatives – were waiting to see if another major candidate would get in the race. We got our answer this week when Chris Christie and Sarah Palin both announced that they would not seek the presidency.
Of the remaining candidates, there are four that most social conservatives will be paying particularly close attention to this weekend: Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain.
There is one word that can be used to describe Mitt Romney’s support, consistent. He has remained at or near the top of the polls for, well, years now. No matter who has gotten in the race, his numbers haven’t really changed. The most recent example came earlier this week when the speculation about Christie had reached its apex; a Quinnipaic poll had Christie tied with Romney at 17 percent.
The question remains, how will he be received this weekend? Will social conservatives take another look at him now that the field is set? He has never been especially loved by social conservatives, but he has always been well received and respected. He’s not a firebrand like Rick Santorum, and he doesn’t throw out as much red meat as Michele Bachmann, but he does speak to conservatives and our values.
When it comes to issues, it is important to remember that social conservatives don’t limit their issues to abortion and marriage. All of the major candidates agree on the sanctity of human life and marriage. However, there are issues that all the top candidates don’t see eye-to-eye on that conservatives are very interested in. Immigration (i.e. securing our borders) for one, is a major conservative issue – an issue with which Romney has resonated with conservatives.
Conservatives have been disappointed with Perry’s stance on immigration, essentially providing state subsidies to illegal immigrants who attend Texas universities. Perry entered the race the darling of social conservatives. The Values Voter Summit is a key opportunity for Perry to connect with his base. His $17 million fundraising haul will buy him time, but the question is what he will do with that time, and this is his key constituency. If he continues to wear his faith on his sleeve, which is an important part of who he is that social conservatives like, will it be enough, or can he bring something else to the table?
For Michele Bachmann, this weekend represents a critical point in her campaign. One of her biggest competitors, Palin, is no longer a factor in the race, and the values voters are her crowd. Can she find the fire that propelled her to the top tier just a few months ago or will she continue fall in the polls? This may be her last opportunity to connect with conservative voters.
The biggest question mark of the campaign at the moment is Herman Cain. He is seeing a strong resurgence of his campaign, building off a huge straw poll win in Florida. The key question for Cain is will he take advantage of this late surge or will he fizzle, as he did a few months ago? If he can match substance with his rhetoric at this critical juncture, where many social conservatives are searching for their candidate, he could solidify himself near the front of the race. However, he must reach the social issues, not just the fiscal ones. The Values Voter Summit presents him an important opportunity to do just that.
Does the winner of the Values Voter Summit straw poll become the new frontrunner in the GOP race? Not necessarily, but it could serve as an important building block as the campaign begins to pick up. We all eagerly await the results as election season begins to kick in to high gear.
Jordan Sekulow is Executive Director of the American Center for Law & Justice and writes for the On Faith’s blogging network at the Washington Post. Matthew Clark is an attorney for the ACLJ.