For 2012 candidates, social conservatism a given

FILE - In this Sept. 6, 2011, file photo Republican presidential hopeful former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talks about his plan for creating jobs and improving the economy during a speech in Las Vegas at McCandless International Trucks. While Iowa and New Hampshire get the bulk of their attention, Republican presidential candidates are starting to step up their activity in the state that votes next in the string of nominating contests and whose caucuses could scramble the GOP race. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File) Julie Jacobson

Mitt Romney
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney did his best to convince voters at the Values Voter Summit in Washington Saturday that he'd advance their socially conservative agenda as president
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

In a year like this, social conservatives may be worried that the issues that matter to them will fall to the wayside as the economy dominates the presidential contest. But this year's Values Voter Summit in Washington proved two things: Republicans are far from close to choosing their 2012 presidential candidate, but they can rest assured all the viable candidates represent their social vales.

Like he often does, Republican Rep. Ron Paul ran away with the straw poll at the Values Voter Summit, even though he's arguably the least socially conservative presidential candidate who showed up to the event. Paul's supporters are notorious for bussing in students who support the libertarian candidate to vote in straw polls.

But when asked if there are any candidates that aren't conservative enough for his liking, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, whose group FRC Action hosted the conference, didn't seem too concerned about the matter.

"I'm pretty encouraged by the field we have," he said. "We've got a pretty conservative field of candidates."

Indeed, even Paul has demonstrated his conservative values in ways such as signing the Susan B. Anthony "pro-life" pledge, promising to take actions like promoting a law banning abortions at the point at which a fetus is capable of feeling pain.

The main questions about conservatism, however, were reserved for Mitt Romney, whose evolution on social issues is well known.

Perkins said that Romney "still has to connect with the values community" but said the former Massachusetts governor gave a good speech to the Values Voter audience that should help him make that connection.

Conservatives are aware Romney once called himself "pro-choice" and that in the 1990's he said equal rights for gays should be a "mainstream concern." But in his speech Saturday, he promised to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood and said it is critical to "preserve traditional marriage, the joining together of one man and one woman." Romney has promised to work to advance all of the National Organization for Marriage's key goals, including supporting a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

The key to Romney's campaign, however, may be the argument he's the most electable candidate -- even at a conference like the Values Voter Summit.

"I voted [in the straw poll] for Romney largely as a protest vote because [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry can't debate," said Chris Ring, a 20-year-old sophomore at George Washington University. Ring, however, said he wouldn't characterize himself as a "values" voter; he was at the conference to see the candidates.

Chris Balkema of Channahon, Illinois, however, is dedicated to the cause of the conference. He's attended the Values Voter Summit for four years in a row and said an important issue for him is the defense of marriage.

Still, he said, "What is very important this year is the independents and moderates in the middle who are far less concerned with social issues than the economy."

Romney conveyed a sense of mainstream appeal at the Values Voter Summit, condemning intolerant speech at the conference. Romney's remarks alluded to the fact that a Texas pastor supporting Rick Perry called Mormonism - Romney's religion - a "cult," but Romney also took a specific jab at hateful remarks from the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer. Fischer was on the docket to speak that the conference after Romney.

While Romney may seem like a mainstream candidate to some voters, he has yet to really excite people.

Voters respond to things like "passion" and "personality," Perkins said. While Perry and Romney still have "work to do," Perkins said, "Herman Cain had people on their feet, Rick Santorum connected with people."

Businessman Herman Cain came in second place in the straw poll, winning 23 percent of the vote. Perry, meanwhile, took in 8 percent while Romney won 4 percent. Rep. Michele Bachmann also only garnered 8 percent in the straw poll.

Bachmann's campaign has largely been grounded in her socially conservative views, and she's pressed voters in recent weeks to resist the urge to "settle" for a less conservative candidate.

Jim Matthews of Gaithersberg, Maryland said that Bachmann's message is "redundant" in the GOP primary.

"I don't think people want to settle," he said, suggesting they won't have to. "I think people will choose the candidate that is appropriate to lead the ticket." Matthews said he currently favors Cain and former Sen. Rick Santorum.

But, he said, "I don't think the race is anywhere near settled in any way at all."

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