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What if You Held a Candidate Forum and Nobody Came?

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With little fanfare and limited press coverage, the first candidate forum of the 2012 Republican presidential primary was held in Iowa yesterday. The forum was sponsored by Ralph Reed’s Faith and Family coalition and was intended to be the major opening event of the election season. Instead, none of the major candidates showed up and it fizzled out with lukewarm press coverage and little followup from the sponsors, who haven’t even bothered to post video of the event to their YouTube page, though it did play live on C-SPAN.

An unkind observer might think that they are embarrassed that their major event to promote social conservatism in the Republican primary went off with a fizzle and passed nearly unnoticed by the party and was treated dismissively by the media. The sad truth is that of the 16 candidates generally believed to be running, only 5 chose to attend the FFC forum, and none of the major figures were there. The most prominent stars in their constellation of also-rans were Newt Gingrich who has some popularity within the party but is utterly unelectable, Herman Cain who is a great speaker but an outsider without a strong base of support and the increasingly disappointing flash-in-the-pan Tim Pawlenty, who got some early excitement but has already peaked and lost the interest of party activists.

The big guns were not there by choice. Although invited, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee were not in attendance. Nor were any of the exciting second-tier candidates like Governors Gary Johnson and Mitch Daniels, both of whom have charted a course focused on economic issues and actively downplaying any radical social agenda. Ron Paul was in Iowa, but chose to make a speech at a local university instead of attending. Romney and Johnson are focusing on New Hampshire. Daniels is recovering from a shoulder injury. Ironically, the most excited press coverage of the event focused on the exclusion of openly gay Republican Fred Karger who has followed up by filing an FEC complaint against the FFC.

Most of the performances were relatively uninspiring, as you might expect from a group of relatively unimpressive candidates. Not surprisingly the focus was on social issues, tailored to please the audience, coming from candidates who wouldn’t have been attending if they weren’t comfortable with that agenda, or perhaps because they are just desperate. There wasn’t a lot of red meat to be found, but Herman Cain gives one hell of a stump speech. I give him credit for being the only candidate who didn’t pander to the crowd by playing up his religious beliefs. He comes off kind of like a cross between Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan.

With all the general excitement about the election, I think it is very telling that there was so little interest in attending this particular forum despite its key location and potentially large audience. It’s clear that major candidates are distancing themselves from the religious right and didn’t want to be seen in a context where they had to present themselves as too socially conservative. An awareness may finally be dawning among Republicans that the kind of pandering to the evangelical minority that may help you in a primary election in an extremely conservative state like Iowa is not going to help you in the general election and might even hurt you in key early primaries in other states like New Hampshire.

Aside from Cain, who may have made it through this forum looking strong and sensible by comparison, I think this may turn out to have been a farewell appearance rather than a campaign opener for most of these candidates.

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • M. Nolan

    I think the story here is that the “social conservatives” are so out of vogue this cycle that even the big-government conservatives can’t find room in their heart for them. Good riddance to the political power of Reed, and the like. These guys brought us the big-government era of the Republican party, and it’s time for these Communists to focus on their communities, instead of trying to instill morality from DC.

  • Bluegillmaster

    Ron Paul 2012!

  • Joseph Cotto

    Here is to hoping that this is a sign of things to come.

    The social authoritarians simply must learn that the Republican Party is not, by its very nature, an organization designed to bring their totalitarian fantasies to life.

  • Dave Nalle

    The problem for them is that there really isn’t any party which wants to represent a repressive social agenda.


  • handyguy

    The GOP has done a remarkably convincing imitation of a party representing a “repressive social agenda,” using gay rights and abortion repeatedly as campaign issues for years, not to mention the ugliest of nativist anti-immigrant rhetoric.

    I believe Dave when he says there are significant liberty/tea party folks who reject social conservatism, but socially conservative red meat rhetoric has found a welcoming audience in most GOP primaries since the 80s. And I will believe that has changed when I see it.

  • Dave Nalle

    A vocal minority gets a lot of attention, but it’s still a minority when push comes to shove and the current high pressure situation is making people decide what their real priorities are.