Tepid Warmup to the 2012 Iowa Caucus

The 2012 Iowa Caucus preseason kicked off last Monday when five potential GOP presidential hopefuls—Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Buddy Roemer, and Tim Pawlenty—spoke at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition forum.

Before the potential candidates spoke, Faith & Freedom Coalition founder and Chairman Ralph Reed, taking a shot at another potential 2012 presidential aspirant, Mitch Daniels, said that calling for a social truce when liberals refuse to pull back on social issues amounts to “unilateral disarmament.”

Reed also said that Republicans needed to “walk and chew gum at the same time,” and that “Republicans will be a permanent minority if they tell social conservatives to sit in the back of the bus.”

If 2012 is going to be a tight election, as many experts believe, then Republicans will need social conservative, evangelical voters.  Historically, when such voters have been energized, Republicans have won presidential elections, such as in 2000 and 2004.  When these voters have sat home, Republicans have lost national elections.

The forum provided an early preview of what the contours of the 2012 race may look like.

Former businessman and radio host Herman Cain wowed the audience with his oratory.  Cain said the United States of America would not turn into the United States of Europe on his watch.  Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer mixed in some homespun Southern style and attacked ethanol subsidies.  His brand of populism was captivating.  He embraced Main Street while attacking Wall Street and the “boomtown” that is Washington, D.C.  These two messages will resonate with the GOP primary electorate even though Roemer and Cain are probably not going to be the messengers that primary voters want.

Cain and Roemer’s impressive speeches highlighted what seems to be a lackluster embrace of the more established candidates.

Gingrich said that the turning point for him in deciding to pursue a higher calling was when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it was unconstitutional to say “under God.”  But fresh off a week of tactical blunders in the announcement of the formation of an exploratory committee, Gingrich’s professorial appearance highlighted the dilemma he will face:  Will voters pay more attention to his brilliant ideas or to his personal failings?

Tim Pawlenty was energetic.  But his delivery seemed forced, his accemt wavered back and forth between Southern and upper Midwestern, and his rhetoric seemed borrowed from President Obama.  His speech touched on a lot of different points on spending and values without a central theme.  In the end, that may be Pawlenty’s path to the nomination—slowly gathering one group after another and building his coalition from the ground up.

Rick Santorum delivered a polished speech and early signs are that should Santorum enter the race, he will be a formidable debater and a potential gadfly that challenges other candidates on their social conservative purity.

Notable potential candidates who did not attend the forum were Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, and Mike Huckabee.

Perhaps it is because these candidates already have a high enough profile that they have nothing to gain by appearing at these early forums.

According to recent findings by Zeta Buzz, in the last three-week interval, Romney has been the most talked-about candidate online, followed by Palin, Paul, Gingrich, and Huckabee.

Perhaps reflecting the lack of enthusiasm from the GOP primary electorate at the outset, none of these candidates has an online favorable rating that is greater than his online negative rating, according to Zeta Buzz.

In fact, the only candidate in the top 10 who has an online favorable rating (51%) that is greater than his negative rating (49%) is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, according to the Zeta Buzz study.