Des Moines, IA - Presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Polk County Republican Chairman Kevin McLaughlin agree that Iowans are uniquely qualified to vet and weed out Republican candidates in the earliest stages of the primary season. However, they strongly disagree on the importance social issues should play in selecting the Republican who will face President Obama in the General Election.
"It makes no sense," Santorum told a crowd during an October 16 campaign event in Des Moines, rebuking Florida's decision to move their primary from March to January 31. Florida's decision to move their primary set off a chain reaction of other states maneuvering to push up the date of their respective elections.
"Iowa has a long tradition of vetting candidates," he said. "It's insane."
Since 1972, the Iowa caucuses have been the first major electoral event of the nominating process for President. State party leaders initially felt pressured to move their caucuses up this season, but ultimately settled on January 3.
Responding to an array of questions from audience members who attended the Sunday event at Smokey Row Coffee House, Santorum continued to vent his frustration with the shuffling of dates.
"States like Florida already have tremendous importance as a swing state," he said.
Santorum also alleged that one or more of the leading candidates might have been "gaming the system" in order to compress the primary timeline, thus taking the emphasis away from the Iowa Caucus which traditionally enjoys first in the nation status.
Several reports point to Mitt Romney as one of the candidates who may have worked behind the scenes to support an earlier primary date in the Sunshine State.
Chairman McLaughlin, who is in his first term as the county's party leader, confirmed this week during an interview at the Iowa Machine Shed Restaurant in Urbandale that he has also heard from state party insiders that candidates were working to buck tradition, but points to two specific reasons why Iowa remains best qualified to conduct the early primary.
"It's simple," he explained. "Population numbers and our size, geographically,"
The disadvantage of other states, he said, is that the candidates can't reach enough voters face to face. He referenced California and Texas as examples of states where most voters never have an opportunity to meet or hear directly from a contender, and end up hearing only "pre-packaged sound bites" and "talking points" through the mainstream media.
"We take the time, invest in the process, and vet these people for the rest of the country," said McLauglin, who worked as a key member of the Steve Forbes campaign in 1996.
"When a candidate announces they're running for president, they better come early and they better come often," he said of Iowa's history of retail politics.
Though unwilling to confirm on the record which candidate he personally supports, McLaughlin did share the key trait he believes no candidate will be able to survive without, if he or she hopes to turn the country around.
"The eventual Republican nominee will be the candidate who, first and foremost, has shown the strength and discipline to take on the establishment within its own party," he asserted.
Meanwhile, as Santorum proudly boasts that he once made Democratic strategist James Carville's list of "most hated politicians", McLaughlin would like nothing more than to have the former Senator of Pennsylvania and other Republican candidates heed Carville's famed refrain from President Bill Clinton's campaign from 1992: "It's the economy, Stupid."
"When you're on a plane and it's going down, the last thing you should be concerned with is your seat location or the food selection," McLaughlin said by phone during the first of two conversations, discussing the importance of candidates keeping the national debate focused squarely on the economy, as opposed to social issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion.
"Land the plane. Then we'll have the other discussion," he argued. "None of that stuff is putting money is people's pockets."
Consistent with previous Republican primaries, this season has shown there is a dividing line between "values" or "social issue" voters and the conventional conservative Republican.
In 2007, a Pew Research Center survey found that "for the general public, social issues were overshadowed in the presidential campaign by the war in Iraq and domestic issues such as the economy and health care."
Nevertheless, a large portion of Republican voters (43%) said social issues were very important in deciding who to vote for in the 2008 presidential race.
While much has changed since 2007 -- Bin Laden is dead, the Tea Party is a force, and Wall Street is 'occupied' -- much has stayed the same.
As Bill Emmott, former Editor of the Economist, said in 2008, "most general elections are won or lost on economic issues, for those are the day-to-day matters that affect more voters than any other."
A February 2011 analysis by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life found that "Tea Party supporters tend to have conservative opinions not just about economic matters, but also about social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage." In addition, it shows, those same voters are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues.
"I disagree," said Santorum when asked to respond to Chairman's McLaughlin's metaphor of the plunging plane.
"I think there absolutely is a moral component to the economic problems we're facing. It's not just about cutting taxes. There is a human element involved."
This week, Santorum doubled down on his already fervent support for social issues.
During a videotaped interview with CaffeinatedThoughts.com editor Shane Vander Hart, Santorum pledged to "die on that hill" fighting against same-sex marriage. He also vowed to repeal all federal funding for contraception because he believes it is "a license to do things in a sexual realm."
Strategically, the timing of the video's release couldn't be better for Santorum. This weekend, the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition is hosting its eleventh annual Fall Banquet and Presidential Candidate Forum, providing a chance for candidate to speak and engage directly with one of the leading groups currently working to mobilize conservatives and people of faith to impact public policy and, of course, the 2012 election.
Whether Santorum's message and voting record will ultimately capture the hearts and minds of a conservative majority is debatable. But, for now, poll numbers show voters still siding with McLaughlin.