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Social Conservatives and the 2012 Hopefuls

Luke Johnson’s piece on the Values Voters Summit, which took place in Washington this weekend, provides a nice look into the ongoing war over the importance of social issues for GOP voters — as well as a window into why it will be hard for Republicans to nominate a candidate in 2012 with broad enough appeal to pose a legitimate challenge to President Obama.

Socially conservative voters, who have at times felt marginalized by the strong libertarian streak within the tea party movement, came out in force to the conference, and many of them implicitly criticized fiscally minded conservatives like Indiana governor and 2012 presidential hopeful Mitch Daniels (R):

Though no speaker mentioned him…Mitch Daniels is a source of this consternation. The next president “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues,” he told The Weekly Standard. Even so, the vast majority of the GOP — including Daniels himself, who is still pro-life and favors reinstating [the] “Mexico City Policy” — remains conservative on social issues.

Daniels is exactly the kind of sober guy who could translate the country’s ongoing economic woes, if they persist, into a GOP victory in 2012, but he’s also the least likely to get socially conservative voters excited about his candidacy. This poses a big problem for the GOP, which seems poised to choose someone who riles up the base — like Sarah Palin, or maybe former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) — but turns off the non-evangelical portions of the country. For further evidence of this problem, check out the Values Voters straw poll:

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chair of the House GOP conference, also gave a barnstorming speech, connecting stem-cell research, abortion and marriage to fiscal issues. (“You want to find savings? Let’s cut funding to research that destroys human embryos in the name of science and let’s deny any and all funding to Planned Parenthood.”)

On the wings of this speech, Pence won the conference’s 2012 Presidential Straw Poll, beating out Huckabee by 11 votes, 170-159. The win will no doubt encourage speculation of a presidential run for Pence. However, it remains extremely difficult to win a nomination, let alone the presidency, from the House of Representatives, partly given to a low familiarity level among a general electorate. The only sitting House member to ever win the White House was James Garfield in 1880.

They might not be in the media spotlight as much these days, but socially conservative voters are still a big part of the GOP base and a potentially crucial member of any coalition for a Republican candidate hoping to represent the party in 2012.

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