Who Will Be the GOP's Conservative Culture Hero?

Who among the GOP's early presidential hopefuls are in a position to win the roughly 15 percent of the voting public who are conservative Christians? What are the signals that they might choose to send out? And who will be hobbled by sending out the wrong ones?
01/05/2015 06:14 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2015

And they're off! Or so it seems, even before they've announced.

Maybe it's no way to run a democracy, and just maybe the founding fathers are turning in their graves, but here we are at the start of another endless presidential cycle. Just as Thanksgiving prevents Christmas from starting in September, only the midterm elections stop the presidential campaigns from beginning as soon as the previous one has ended.

At this stage the chess game among Republican hopefuls turns on assessing their capacity to build a ground organization -- critical in the straw polls and primaries -- and convince the big donors that they are credible, as it will take nearly $200 million to win the nomination, and more than $1 billion to run. Did someone say "issues"? The big ones at the moment, like immigration and healthcare reform, might have competition by spring 2016.

But there's another set of concerns that are especially important in the modern GOP primary process, because they bring along the roughly 15 percent of the voting public who are conservative Christians. (Though there is some overlap with the tea party, these values conservatives are not necessarily as libertarian.) Going beyond abortion restrictions, these issues concern the dignity and uniqueness of the human being and traditional conceptions of courtship and family. Thus topics like end-of-life care and even esoteric matters like cloning and stem-cell research were sentinel issues for many of these activists in previous 21st-century campaigns.

Though these issues might not be on the short list in the general election, they are a sine qua non for many in the base who can bring energy and enthusiasm to the ground battles to come. Who among the early hopefuls are in a position to win those voters? What are the signals that they might choose to send out? And who will be hobbled by sending out the wrong ones?

Rick Santorum, supposedly an admirer of the writings of the orthodox Anglican theologian C.S. Lewis, was a darling of many social conservatives last time out. So was Mike Huckabee, but his varied statements on the Common Core educational standards might turn off socially conservative parents who worry about what their children are being taught.

They might try again, but at the moment the early favorite for those hearts is Ben Carson. He seems to have been sent down from central casting for the role. An up-by-his-bootstraps African-American neurosurgeon who speaks softly but carries a big rhetorical scalpel, Carson was a member of President George W. Bush's bioethics council, which was notably skeptical about biotechnological innovations that challenged traditional notions of and respect for human beings. Enthusiasm for Carson could power him through the early going and give him reason to hang in for quite a while.

All the others positioned for those voters -- including Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and perhaps Rand Paul -- bring somewhat less purity to their positions than Carson does; unlike them, he has no governing record to run against. And unless Jeb Bush can fight off the perception that he's the establishment favorite (read: too willing to compromise), even his clear pro-life stance might not persuade social conservatives that their issues are really what defines him. By contrast, it's easy for these folks to fall in love with Carson, as he wears those values on his sleeve.

If Carson can avoid some unforced errors, he's the one to watch as the standard bearer for the culture warriors. In a crowded field some external event that plays to a particular candidate's strengths can make a big difference.

In Dr. Carson's case, a controversial lab experiment that plays into the narrative of science undermining human dignity would be the most helpful headline he could get.