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Who Won the First Real Contest of the 2012 Election?

This item is cross-posted from The New Republic.

On Monday night, the 2012 Republican primary kicked off in earnest. The occasion was an Iowa forum sponsored by Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition, which is eager to ensure that the Christian Right (and Ralph Reed, who is launching his own comeback) maintains a prominent--indeed, an absolutely overweening--place in the decision-making process of the GOP. This "cattle call" was held in a brightly colored suburban megachurch in Waukee, Iowa, known locally for having a rockin' pastor and praise band. It was a strange event, full of partisan red meat, but also off-kilter due to the fact that several major figures in this election's social-conservative psychodrama, Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann, were not in attendance. What the audience did witness was an eclectic group of conservative sinners jockeying against each other--and the absent ghosts listed above--in hopes of subtly differentiating themselves in the eyes of Christian conservatives.

Obscure talk-show host and former pizza magnate Herman Cain was actually the most natural. He managed to act as something of a stand-in for Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, evincing a snug synthesis of the old Christian Right and the new Tea Party, and fluently tying together attacks on legalized abortion with claims that liberals were trying to turn America into the "United States of Europe." But who cared? With several more appealing, more electable Christians waiting in the wings, his fluency seemed a moot point.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich opted to bury his audience in chillingly direct rhetoric about the clash between secularism and Christianity. He referred to the opposition not as "liberals" or "Democrats" but as "secular socialists"; compared the current partisan conflict to the buildup before the Civil War; and promised that two of his first four executive orders as president would deal with abortion, while a third would move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (a guaranteed applause line among staunchly pro-Israel evangelicals). It seemed almost enough to distract the audience from his less-than-sterling family values.

Ex-Senator Rick Santorum spent most of his speech dwelling on his role in the Right to Life movement, even going so far as to declare it a good thing that Bill Clinton vetoed two bills banning partial-birth abortions because the procedure's legality served as agitprop for general opposition to legalized abortion. (George W. Bush finally signed a bill on this subject, which Santorum had originally sponsored.) Had he waved a fetus poster right there at the podium, it would not have been surprising.

The most unusual speech of the evening was delivered by former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, best known for a failed 1991 re-election campaign that teed up the infamous "race from hell" runoff between Ed Edwards and David Duke (Roemer wryly noted in his speech that he narrowly lost, but Edwards and Duke both wound up in the penitentiary). Roemer's shtick is to refuse to accept campaign contributions over $100, and he tried to frame his assault against "special interest" money as a moral issue, even going so far as to blast Iowa's beloved ethanol subsidy as a symbol of corruption and Big Government. This attracted hearty, charitable applause, of the kind that brooks no commitment whatsoever.

Perhaps the most consequential talk of the night was given by Tim Pawlenty, who is trying to frame himself as a good alternative for Christian conservatives, in case their more visceral champions fail to enter the race or to gain traction. He is clearly trying to figure out the right mode of speaking to the Republican base without appearing too bland--so this time he just spoke extremely loudly and quoted as much scripture as possible. Pawlenty did deftly employ one of the Christian Right's most potent dog whistles, referring multiple times to the line in the Declaration of Independence which says that people are "endowed by their creator" with inalienable rights. (The implication is that religion and "natural rights," i.e., the rights of the unborn or absolute property rights, can be sneaked into the Constitution via their alleged presence in the Declaration.) But, by and large, Pawlenty did not manage to give off the impression of an ardent culture warrior who chews nails for breakfast--something he will have to perfect if he wants to capitalize on the political opening available for him in 2012.

Meanwhile, everyone was bagging on Mitch Daniels, who is looking less and less like a viable Iowa candidate. Early on in the event, Ralph Reed directly alluded to Daniels's belief that Republicans should declare a "truce" in the culture wars by trashing it; and nearly everyone who stood at the podium attempted to make it clear he didn't buy the idea that the "Red Menace" of debt--in Daniels's phrase-- should motivate them to stop talking about abortion or same-sex marriage or secularism.

The mood of Ralph Reed's forum was instructive. Religious conservatives are not about to be consigned to the background of Republican politics, particularly in Iowa where--as Reed reminded the audience--they are in a position to dominate the caucuses. There was no appetite for talk of compromise or dialogue with the Democrats, and candidates like Daniels, or even Pawlenty, seem like they might face a disadvantage if they do not sharpen their red-meat delivery. After the Tea Party victories of 2010, the atmosphere of the event was unabashedly triumphalist. It was a signal that conservatives will be highly energized in 2012--but perhaps also over-confident.