And so the Presidential race turns to New Hampshire. The only real question is whether a unifying candidate can emerge from the religious conservative wing of the party. Newt Gingrich? Rick Santorum? Neither?
The Republican party today is broadly split in three: there is the establishment represented by Mitt Romney. There are libertarians and constitutionalists represented by Ron Paul. And there are religious conservatives — a large chunk of the electorate, but without a consistent or fiscally conservative figurehead. And that’s unsurprising. Religious conservatives believe in the government legislating morality and redistributing wealth. Certainly, they believe in a different morality, and a different pattern of redistribution than Obama. But it is still tax-and-spend redistribution. Gingrich’s and Santorum’s records speak very clearly on that. And in the current economic climate, big spending is unpalatable. Each religious or social conservative that has surged to the top tier — Bachmann, Perry, Gingrich, Cain, Trump, Palin and Santorum — has crumbled under the spotlight. The Santorum candidacy does not have legs outside of Iowa — he has no money, no organisation, and has a record of voting for various big-spending initatives.
Religious and social conservatives are running out of time, and out of candidates. They may be forced to pin their colours to either Romney or Paul’s mast.
If no religious conservative emerges clearly from New Hampshire or South Carolina it shapes for a very interesting race.
Paul and Romney will maintain their bases. They are in it for the long haul. The winner will be the one who pulls in more of the social conservatives. Romney is confident that this will be him. After all, Paul is not a foreign policy interventionist, and most social and religious conservatives are.
Yet we should not discount economic and fiscal policy. Paul is the staunchest fiscal conservative in the race, and the only candidate with a serious program of cuts. Narrow Romney victories in South Carolina and Florida might not “sew the race up”, so much as drive social conservatives to Ron Paul as the only serious challenger to a Romney candidacy that differs from Obama only in details, not substance.
The other prospect is that social conservatives unite behind one candidate. But who is it to be? Gingrich? Perry? Santorum? None can be described as a consistent fiscal conservative, and that is a problem in this election cycle.
Most likely Romney will win New Hampshire and South Carolina. To many observers that would be game over after just three states. But Romney is an unsettling prospect to many Republicans — too liberal, too Wall Street, too establishment. Ron Paul — the only candidate other than Romney with a firm base — stands a fine chance of establishing himself as the anti-Romney and winning a lot of delegates.