Social conservatives gathered in Washington over the weekend to get an up close look at Republican presidential candidates and to learn how to best organize for the 2012 presidential elections. The social conservative issue of the next election, apart from the economy, which is certainly every voter’s major concern, appears to be Israel. When speakers at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference delivered the pro-Israel portions of their remarks, the attendees frequently responded with standing ovations. I talked about Israel as a top social conservative on Fox News a couple of weeks ago and my claim was vindicated throughout the first national social conservative conference with a focus on 2012.
Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Danny Danon, an Israeli elected official who we have worked with for a number of years, received some of the most enthusiastic support at the conference. Although not well known to the attendees before he was at the podium, when Danon said, “President Obama, take your hands from Jerusalem,” the dinner audience’s response was similar to the way Congress applauded the tough lines delivered by Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu at the joint session. Two days after his speech, Danon was on Fox News live from Jerusalem discussing his remarks. He is an Israeli leader that people need to start paying attention to.
When analyzing the 2012 candidate’s performances, minus Newt Gingrich who sent a video because he was out of the country, it all comes down to enthusiasm. The activists gathered appeared to be more concerned about picking the best person to run against Obama rather than blindly backing a candidate with a faith similar to their own. Issues and ideas have taken center stage.
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann was deservedly treated like a star, her speech was perfectly pitched and sincere. Herman Cain proved once again that he has lighted a fire among the conservative grassroots. While he is now being taken seriously, the question for Cain is: Can transform the grassroots energy into a fundraising machine like Bachmann’s? Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who has a high profile in social conservative politics, can establish himself as a force early in the campaign if he has the money to setup a robust campaign.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who has a solid social conservative record, is now being treated like a first tier candidate. Hurdle one, having Pawlenty become a household name among the most engaged activists, has been cleared. The challenge for Pawlenty now is to turn all of the people who like him and agree with his ideas into people that love him and join his campaign. A couple of solid debate performances and more exposure outside the early caucus and primary states where he is spending so much time could make the difference.
Jon Huntsman, a former governor and ambassador who is relatively unknown to outside the beltway activists, highlighted his pro-life record as Utah’s governor and began to push back against the “social moderate” label bestowed upon him by the media and opponents. While he may not be counting on the social conservative vote to win the nomination, by appearing at the conference Hunstman acknowledged the importance of social conservative enthusiasm, not only in a the primary, but the general election.
There is no doubt about it; Mitt Romney is the frontrunner. Although his speech was not a barnstormer, Romney was treated like a candidate who may very well become the Republican nominee. The activists may not be sold on Mitt 2012, but they respect the Governor and could be convinced to enthusiastically support him in a race against President Obama. A key takeaway from the conference was a theme of post-primary unity to take back the White House.
Finally, there are those who did not attend the event who could totally shake up the Republican primary and alignment of social conservatives. If Sarah Palin, Texas Governor Rick Perry, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, or someone else with big name identification jump into the race, a complete reanalysis will be necessary. Even Mike Huckabee has reopened the possibility of what appeared to be a firmly shut door on another presidential campaign.
If the field is not altered, we are seeing the formation of what may very well become a Romney versus a yet to be determined alternative or two. The question that remains is whether the alternative candidate(s) will be able to attract support from both the right and middle of the Republican Party?