With Santorum In, Religious Conservatives May Have a 2012 Candidate

Unlike previous elections, cultural issues may play a diminished role in primary.

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Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who officially announced his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination Monday morning, could be the best hope for social conservatives to have a say during the 2012 presidential race. With Mike Huckabee bowing out, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin still non-committal, Santorum and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann—who is also looking at a run—are the most prominent voices touting religious or cultural themes.

It’s a change from past elections, when candidates such as Huckabee, Pat Buchanan, Gary Bauer, and Alan Keyes exploited issues such as illegal immigration, gay marriage, abortion, and gun control to nab votes and affect the race. These days, libertarians with moderate or unconventional social views, such as Texas Rep. Ron Paul or former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, seem more likely to grab the attention of voters and the media. But, as a recent Republican values conference in D.C. shows, just because the 2012 election won’t be about abortion or gay marriage doesn’t mean that social activists will be left out. [See a slide show of GOP 2012 contenders.]

Most polls show that issues such as the economy and the federal deficit are at the top of voters’ minds. A May 26 Gallup poll shows that only 15 percent of Republicans view “social issues and moral values” as their top concern in the election. That figure ranks behind the deficit and the economy, and is tied with issues of national security. But as a party that’s still mostly motivated by opposition to Democratic control of the White House, these differences in issues need not divide Republicans. Fiscal conservatives furious about government overreach and social conservatives angry over slipping cultural values find that, as passionate opponents of President Obama and his agenda, they have more in common than they have apart. The fusion between the two strains of conservatism was evident at the 2nd Annual Faith and Freedom Conference in Washington, D.C., last weekend, where fiscal hawks and cultural watchdogs gathered together to try to harness energy from the Tea Party movement. The event drew appearances from most of the prospective 2012 candidates, who all touched on themes of American values.

Organized by former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, the event included a mix of culturally conservative speakers as well as famous fiscal conservative activists such as Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. And that’s OK for social conservatives. “We really have an economic crisis,” says Deal Hudson, an influential Catholic conservative activist who spoke at the conference. “I don’t have a problem with an appropriate amount of attention to that.” Other activists pushed home the message of a common goal. “The divide between the Tea Party and the social conservatives is a false divide,” says Maggie Gallagher, chairwoman of the National Organization for Marriage. “They all have a vision of American, and they’re concerned that it’s being overturned by elites.” [Vote now: Who is your pick for the 2012 GOP nomination?]

In his speech at the conference on Saturday, Santorum tried to lay a claim for the social conservative mantle. “I don’t just take the pledge, I take the bullets,” he said. With 16 years of experience in Congress, he may have the resume to back up his talk. Although he’s perhaps best known for infamously comparing homosexuality to bestiality, while in the Senate he championed legislation banning partial-birth abortions, promoting the teaching of “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution, and protecting religious expression in the workplace. But, after an embarrassing, 18 percent defeat to Bob Casey in 2006—his last run for elective office—he is considered a long-shot for the GOP nomination. Current Gallup polling shows that only 2 percent of GOP voters are supporting his bid, and more than half aren’t familiar with him.

Bachmann, a firebrand Tea Party favorite who is exploring a bid, also touted cultural issues at the conference, noting her support for an amendment to the Minnesota constitution to ban gay marriage and her opposition to the Affordable Care Act, on the grounds that it subsidized abortion. But with only three terms in the House of Representatives, it’s not clear how much clout Bachmann will have on the campaign trail. According to Gallup, she now has support from 5 percent of GOP voters, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the party frontrunner, has 17 percent. [See 5 reasons Palin will the 2012 GOP nod, and 5 reasons she won't.]