Value Voters Offer First Look at 2012 Presidential Contest

We're starting to see the faces several Republican politicians show up regularly on television now. These appearances seemed to pick up after possible GOP presidential contenders spoke at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit in Washington. Of course, there were winners and losers from the straw poll taken at the end of the summit and it’s clear that early positioning has begun for those who seeking to occupy the Oval Office.

At the gathering in mid-September about 2,000 social conservatives heard speeches and presentations from leading conservatives, including most of the conservative politicians considering campaigns to square off against President Obama in 2012.

Attendees cast votes in a straw poll, asking which candidate would be their favorite for the 2012 Republican nomination, just as they had voted in 2007 on their picks for the 2008 nomination.
In the end, the top finisher garned 28% of the vote in the straw poll, four candidates essentially tied for #2 at 12% each and votes for the rest of the group fell in the single digits. The vote totals revealed three winners and two losers as the jockeying begins for the 2012 presidential primaries.
The most obvious winner was former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who is now prominently endorsing political candidates for 2010. A former Baptist pastor, Huckabee’s strategic planning is paying dividends, as his weekly show on Fox News and his regular contributor status on the cable channel have given him a platform to build rapport with millions of voters. Huckabee improved on his standing from the #2 spot in the 2007 straw poll to rise to the top as the favorite with 28% of the straw poll vote.

The first person to suffer a loss at the summit was Huckabee’s 2008 rival -- former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Despite two years of constantly courting the evangelical vote and delivering a very good speech at the summit, Romney scored a distant four-way tie for second place with 12%, showing he still needs to find a way to get traction with this key element of his party’s base. Romney’s money and strong media performances, however, make it impossible to count him out.

The worst loss was suffered by former Governor Sarah Palin. Although she was the darling of the evangelical community in 2008 when she ran for vice president --and was widely talked-up by those attending the summit, the former Alaska governor only won 12% of the vote. Palin who didn’t attend the meeting in Washington despite being confirmed as a speaker. The low vote totals show the damage done to her popularity after her surprising resignation as governor. And who knows? It also might have reflected the reality that some of the summit attendees were miffed by her no-show. The low vote totals for Palin may be a signal that a political career that began with high hopes may be fizzling out. But Palin’s forthcoming book "Going Rogue" also gives her a chance at resurgence, so it’s too early to write her off.

Another clear winner was Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. By bringing in 12% of the vote and tying with both the 2008 vice presidential nominee and John McCain’s chief 2008 rival for the presidential nomination is a real feat for Governor Pawlenty. The governor, whose full-spectrum conservative credentials with his trademark emphasis on working-class issues (saying Republicans must be the party of Sam’s Club, not the country club), has Pawlenty building a firm following among the GOP faithful. The two-term governor of a blue state, Pawlenty cast his appeal as being able to articulate conservative principles in a way that wins over swing voters. The Minnesotan launched his new political action committee on October 1. Now, Pawlenty is positioned to make a lot of new friends and build a national network of support.

The third winner was undoubtedly Congressman Mike Pence from Indiana, who was the fourth in the four-way tie for second place. This newcomer to the House GOP leadership wowed the crowd with his speech which focused on core principles and making the party live up to its ideals. But some strategists would prefer to see Pence, who is just 50 years old run instead in 2012 to succeed Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (whose political acumen and accomplishments could easily make him a formidable presidential contender himself). Pence would still have time to run for president in 2016 or 2020 as a top-tier candidate. Congressman Pence’s numerous performances on top-tier TV shows demonstrate that he’s ready for prime time politics.

Barack Obama has only been in office for a little over nine months. Much can (and will) change before it's time for Americans to vote for a new commander-in-chief. But make no mistake: the 2012 presidential campaign is already underway.

Ken Klukowski is a constitutional lawyer and public commentator in Washington, D.C.