For social conservatives, Thursday’s Republican presidential debate in Orlando was the anticlimax in a day of appearances featuring the candidates. The main event actually was a forum a few hours before the debate hosted by the Florida Chapter of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
The official debate was centered on many of the same issues the GOP’s White House hopefuls jousted over in their last three debates, including Social Security, health care and immigration.
The party’s social conservative bloc, which FFC is organizing for next year’s national election, is certainly interested in those perennial political issues. But it also wants to hear the men and woman vying for the Republican presidential nomination discuss their positions on such social and cultural issues as abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann seized the opportunity at FFC’s pre-debate forum to score points with the GOP’s core voters. “We don’t have to sit on the back of the bus in this election,” she said. “We need to stand up and have a candidate who is a true social conservative.”
Her remark was an indirect dig at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has had little to say about social issues during his campaign, preferring instead to talk about business credentials. Romney followed his usual script during Thursday’s FFC forum, telling the socially-conservative audience, “I’m a business guy, I’m a conservative businessman.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum saved his talking points on the economy and other generic issues for the official debate, hosted by Fox News, Google and the Florida Republican Party.
He appealed to religious conservatives to support his candidacy, reminding them, “I stood tall and I fought” for their causes, even as other conservative Republicans shrank from battle.
The Republicans made no direct attacks on each other during the FFC forum, as they would at the later debate. That provided an opening for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the current frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, to speak about his faith, as he has done in several campaign appearances.
Meanwhile, the official debate echoed prior forums.
Romney went after Perry on Social Security, quoting the Texas governor as saying that the federal entitlement program is “unconstitutional,” and suggesting that it ought to be turned over to the states.
Perry hit back at Romney on health care, saying that the Massachusetts health care program Romney enacted was similar to President Obama’s health care reform, which is anathema to most Republicans.
Santorum and Bachmann also took their shots at Perry. Santorum said the frontrunner is “soft on immigration.” Bachmann skewered Perry again for ordering that Texas schools receive HPV vaccinations.
Florida Republicans are holding a straw poll Saturday. Perry is favored to win. Romney has chosen not to participate, just as he skipped the Iowa straw poll contest in August won by Bachmann.