There is often a debate in presidential elections as to which matters more: a candidate’s views or his character. In fact, there’s no real agreement on what “character” means in the context of politics. But whatever you call it and however you define it, the character issue is much on the minds of conservatives these days. Maybe that is because of the string of Herman Cain’s female accusers or the rise of the thrice-married Newt Gingrich. Perhaps, the voters are simply looking at a way to distinguish among very imperfect contenders. Right Turn will look at the character issue over the next week or so and talk to conservative thinkers who have ruminated about the issue long before the current election cycle.

Yuval Levin refers to “temperament” when he writes that Mitt Romney possesses “a very organized mind, intense discipline, a general sense of calm and restraint, and a systematic approach to everything he does,” while Newt Gingrich “has what you might call a revolutionary disposition: He has great intensity and energy. His mind is drawn to stark and diametrical distinctions; he expects change to occur through cataclysmic clashes and so seems always to be seeking after ways to accelerate the contradictions.” In Levin’s book, “A president has to be a decisive, focused, prudent, disciplined person, who knows what he wants and how to use the power he has to achieve it. Romney’s record on that front is very impressive.”

But character is something more, I think, than a skill set. It relates to a person’s substance, his or her ethical fiber. We can list some of the factors: honesty, loyalty, humility, kindness, patience and so on. But after all, we really don’t know these pols as friends and family do. Some are so cynical as to conclude all pols are moral cretins, so we shouldn’t bother trying to determine the lesser of the evil ones. But some respected conservatives argue strongly that we can learn something about the candidates’ inner ethical lives, and it is incumbent on us to try to puzzle it out.

Robert George, a conservative scholar at Princeton University who helped moderate the Palmetto forum earlier this year, put it this way to me: “Voters assess character by looking at the conduct of a candidate. Virtues and vices are manifested in conduct, or they are not manifested at all.” In other words, watch what they do and have done, not what they say. George thinks character is knowable. He told me: “The first thing voters need to know is whether a candidate has principles. If he doesn’t, then [there is] no need to consider him further.” If he does, George continued, “Then the question is whether his principles are sound — for conservatives, whether they are the principles of limited government, fidelity to the Constitution and the rule of law, democratic accountability, respect for private initiative and the market economy, personal responsibility, the autonomy and authority of the family and other institutions of civil society, a strong and effective military to protect the nation and its interests, the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions, marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, equality before the law, respect for basic civil rights and liberties, such as the rights of religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and so forth.” Next, he argued, the question becomes: “How faithful has he been to them? Has he stood by them in the face of strong temptations or incentives to abandon or compromise them?”

Gary Bauer, among the most prominent social conservative leaders and himself once a presidential candidate, has been thinking about this, too. Conceding that this is a tough subject, he tries to walk through how the average values voter would approach this. “I do think in the real world many people would look at the faith background, even though that is not by itself a definitive marker. Regardless, many evangelicals start there.” He continues that many next “examine the public policy positions to see if they are consistent with that person’s faith or what the voter believes.” He acknowledges that there will be disagreements, but that there are clear cases on which there is wide agreement. He contends, for example, that a candidate who is racist will be considered “fatally flawed” by nearly all voters on the right and the left. And finally, Bauer says voters “are reassured if he or she is happily married, devoted to his or her spouse, loves their children and has some balance in his or her life.”

Family is always a sticky subject in political races. Mitt Romney is out with a new TV ad stressing his constancy, in his marriage and in his church. Is this fair game, especially in an era in which divorce rates are high?

George agrees that a candidate’s track record with his own family is one helpful factor to consider. He explained, “A child’s failings are not necessarily the parents’ fault. But parents do have a very serious obligation to their children. To neglect it is a failure in virtue. It seems to me to be one of many things that might reasonably be taken into account. It can’t just be set aside as a matter of ‘private’ virtue that tells us nothing about a person’s worthiness for public service.”

Bauer agrees that personal character traits tell us something about future public conduct. He says it’s a familiar refrain among value voters that “if an individual won’t keep his promise to his spouse made when he was married and before God, why would they keep promises to their constituents?” And he notes, the Founding Fathers’ were emphatic that “virtue” is essential to maintaining our democracy. He muses, “Perhaps what is going on is a character deficit among voters.”

Indeed, it sometimes seems to be the case that voters aren’t all that interested in finding out the mettle of the candidates. But he remains optimistic. “A lot of people have the right sense of seriousness and try to take the measure of these people.”

In Part 2 tomorrow we’ll look at candidates’ claims of redemption. How do we know if they are sincere?