Christian conservatives — at least, as represented by the 3,000 or so attendees of this year's Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. — are determined to make Barack Obama a one-term president. "My motto for next year is 'anyone but Obama,'" says Ellen Elmore, an attendee from Missouri. Who that anyone is, however, still matters, she says. "We want a real conservative — we don't want another John McCain."
Which gets to the core dilemma facing social conservatives and the Republican Party: They are enthusiastic about next year's election but divided on what it means to be an authentic standard-bearer for the movement. To a large degree, this is a product of dashed hopes. Representative Michele Bachmann thwarted former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty's attempt to appeal to the broad Republican base with her devout adherence to social conservative dogma. In turn, her hold on the conservative imagination was smashed by Texas Governor Rick Perry, who gained rapid appeal with his Southern swagger and brash radicalism. But that wouldn't last, either. With his poor debate performances, weak grasp on the issues, and willingness to buck party orthodoxy on immigration, Perry alienated some conservatives and lost his status as front-runner.
Unlike his competitors, Mitt Romney has maintained steady support among Republicans nationwide. In its most recent survey of GOP voters, ABC News and The Washington Post found that 21 percent of Republicans support the former Massachusetts governor's bid for the nomination — more than any other candidate. That, however, didn't mean much to the crowd at the Values Voter Summit, who weren't so sure of his conservative credentials. "He's just kind of wishy-washy," says Richard Alexander from Virginia. Ellen Elmore was a lot more aggressive when asked about her thoughts on Romney: "He never apologized for Romneycare, he believes in global warming, and he has been praised by Al Gore — that should say it all."
For evangelical Christians, Romney's Mormonism is the core problem with his candidacy. "It is a cult," says the Reverend Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas, who introduced and endorsed Texas Governor Rick Perry at the summit. "Every true, born-again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian." This, he said, "is not a right-wing fringe" view, but one supported by the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
Of course, this dislike of Romney doesn't necessarily translate into support for Perry, whose standing among Republicans has slipped dramatically in recent weeks. "I'm not sure about Perry," said Edward Staves after the governor gave his speech. "I'm not confident that he is who he says he is." Likewise, one longtime summit-goer gave this assessment: "Based on his statements, I'm not confident about Perry on values. And with the HPV vaccine, I don't trust him on health care. If you can't trust him on one thing, what about the others?" Tepid support for Perry brought him 8 percent of the straw poll's vote, tying him with Bachmann.
Indeed, the Values Voter straw poll stands as a testament to conservative uncertainty over the nomination battle.
Georgia businessman Herman Cain, who entered the Republican race as a novelty, has emerged as one of the most popular figures in the field. Last month, he scored a first-place finish in the Florida straw poll, and this weekend, he earned second place in the Values Voter straw poll with 23 percent of the vote. (First place went to Texas Congressman Ron Paul, whose fervent supporters left him with 37 percent of the vote.) Romney — the front-runner nationwide — pulled in 4 percent of the vote.
Cain's speech Friday afternoon was a barnstormer. His loudest applause, a standing ovation, came when he noted his upbringing under Jim Crow, but he told the crowd that he's never been upset with the treatment of blacks in America. "I have achieved all of my American dreams and then some, because of the great nation, United States of America," Cain said. "What's there to be angry about?" he asked.
Post-speech, audience reactions were effusive. "The guy was fabulous," said one attendee, "Does the term 'home run' ring a bell?"
Of course, even with his popularity among some Republicans, Cain is a long shot for the GOP nomination — his organization in early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina is thin, to say nothing of his nonexistent presence in later states that might prove crucial. Among the people I spoke to, most understood this: "I don't give him a chance, but it would be interesting," said Edward Staves. "At least, no one would call him a racist."
This, more than anything else, gets to why Herman Cain has risen to the top of the GOP field. Yes, conservatives are unhappy with Romney and disappointed with Perry. Yes, Cain has charisma to spare (as you can tell from watching his speeches). But that doesn't explain his rapid rise to the top. Insofar as anything does, it's this: To many conservatives, Cain offers absolution from racial guilt and a unique chance to turn the tables on liberals who accuse the right of racism. When Herman Cain says that he isn't angry about the treatment of blacks during Jim Crow, he's offering racial grace on the cheap — a chance to feel good about race without actually doing much. This is what differentiates Cain from everyone else in the GOP field, and to many Republicans — including the ones at the Values Voter Summit — it's all he needs for their support.