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Florida Republicans face a dilemma on primary day

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(1/31/2012) FT. LAUDERDALE – As Republicans throughout Florida head to the polls to select their choice for the GOP’s presidential candidate, many are facing a difficult dilemma. While each candidate has different positions, they all have baggage that makes them less attractive against an increasingly strong sitting Democratic president.

Mitt Romney, the apparent front runner, now leading his closest challenger in Florida by double-digits, is seen as the only ‘electable’ candidate by many Republicans, in that many believe that he could defeat President Obama in November. His critics, including Newt Gingrich, have labeled him to be a divisive venture capitalist, an elitist and a moderate. They use the Massachusetts state-mandated health insurance system, passed under Romney, the then-governor, as a means of equating him to Obama’s health care plan.

The former governor’s apparent ‘flip-flopping’ – even from debate to debate – have given his challengers fodder to show that he cannot stick to one position. His changing stance on abortion – always a hot button issue in presidential politics – is often cited as the biggest evidence of his inability to commit to one side. Through the release of Romney’s tax returns, on the same day as the State of the Union Address a week ago, he is viewed more so as an elite multi-millionaire, who may be out of touch with the common middle-class worker. His experiences at Bain Capital are used to demonstrate his aggressive financial strategies which, while creating companies, also closed companies and laid off hundreds of workers.

Despite all of these ills, Romney is seen by many as having the best chance against Obama in the fall. More Republicans are recognizing that Romney may be the most appealing to the most Americans outside the GOP.

Thankfully for the former Governor, his Mormon faith has received little attention. American history has shown us that only one out of the past 44 Presidents was non-Protestant Christian: John F. Kennedy, who was Catholic.

Newt Gingrich, the fiery former Speaker of the House, remembered for his leadership in 1994’s GOP Contract with America, seems like the perfect conservative. In terms of his position on many issues, he may just be the perfect conservative. Yet it is not his platform that seems to drag him down – rather it’s the perception of him as a person and in the context of his challenging Obama for the White House.

Gingrich has character issues. His challengers have harped on his less than stellar departure from the House of Representatives, after stepping down from the Speaker position and being found guilty of ethics violations. Then there is his former affiliation with Freddie Mac. Romney’s attacks on Newt, particularly in Florida, describing him as receiving millions of dollars from the mortgage giant when millions of Floridians were losing their homes to foreclosure, has been particularly successful. With nearly one-quarter of the foreclosures in the nation taking place right here in Florida, this criticism is one that most Floridians can sympathize with.

Beyond that, however, his personal life seems to defy typical conservative values. Newt, now married to his third wife, Calista, has had two failed marriages – not due to disagreements or personality conflicts – but due to infidelity – his infidelity. To make matters worse, while he criticized then-President Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Newt was himself cheating on his wife. As if that was not bad enough, he was having this affair after she was diagnosed and receiving treatment for cancer.

The former Speaker’s second marriage also ended due to his infidelity. In the now-famous ABC News interview with his second ex-wife, we learned that he was cheating on her after she learned of her diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Shockingly to most conservatives, he apparently asked his second wife for an ‘open marriage’ that would allow him to openly cheat on her (and vice versa) with whom ever they chose. These would be the values of a conservative president?

Ever the master of elusion, when confronted with this character and family values issue at a recent Presidential debate in South Carolina, Newt turned the tables on CNN’s John King and dodged the question, instead skillfully attacking the media. His political kung-fu so impressed South Carolinians that he walked away as the winner of that state’s primary. The largely southern ultra conservative community ignored character and values issues of infidelity, so-called ‘open’ marriage, and the apparent heartless abandonment of two of his illness-stricken wives when they needed him most.

Rick Santorum, the late-announced winner of the Iowa caucuses, is also often viewed as the ever-perfect conservative. Santorum’s campaign has played it safe, choosing not to be too aggressive or to attack his competitors too harshly. While playing the nice guy and talking about his virtues may work up north, Florida Republicans are cut-throat. They want decisive, fierce and unashamed leaders. That’s why we have Rick Scott as our governor, after all.

While the media has only picked up on it briefly, there has been some controversy over the 1996 death of the Santorums’ ninth child. Karen Santorum was apparently 19 weeks pregnant, when she developed a uterine infection secondary to intrauterine surgery. Left only with the choice of taking medications that would result in imminent delivery (and the death of the baby upon or shortly after birth) or risking Mrs. Santorum’s own life with her already present 105-degree fever, the couple chose to take the medications. Many on the left have described this as a partial-birth abortion.

It is one thing for a candidate to take a stance on a touchy subject like abortion. It is another thing completely for one to have experienced the decision in the face of dire circumstances, and then to pick the one he claims to be against. One cannot blame the Santorums for their decision. No one has the right to criticize them for it. It is not unfair, however, to point out that a conservative candidate for President, who argues a pro-life position as part of his campaign and in his book It Takes a Family, did not stick to his political principles.

Just as with Romney, Santorum’s Catholic faith has garnered little, if any attention. If elected President, he would only be the nation’s second Catholic to serve in the White House. While that is not a handicap in itself, it may be a minor factor for many non-Catholics in the general election.

Ron Paul, the quintessential Libertarian, always seems to make a good point. He polls highly when conservatives are asked about issues. However, he is also seen as somewhat of a crazy old man who wants to keep sticking his nose into a race he won’t win. Paul, who just announced that he will not seek another term in Congress, has acknowledged that he doesn’t expect to get the nomination of his party, and has not ruled out an independent run for the Presidency in November.

Paul’s ‘back-to-conservative-values’ approach strikes a note with many conservatives, including Tea Party supporters of Bachmann and Cain. It may be his personality and approach that throws would-be supporters off, however. He is not afraid to call a spade a spade. He doesn’t temper his policy positions simply because they are not in line with the party’s establishment.

Perhaps where Rep. Paul loses most of his support is in his views on U.S. foreign policy and the military: he believes that the U.S. should have a relative isolationist foreign policy, and would downsize the armed forces to a level consistent only with defending U.S. soil itself. No more wars in the Middle East. The war on terrorism would be relegated to economic and political battles. No more financial aid to many allies around the world.

His stance on the size, reach and existence of government agencies also often rubs conservatives as a little too far to the right. He would eliminate most government agencies, laying off thousands of workers. In true Libertarian fashion, he would limit if not curtail government regulation and intrusion. He believes that the income tax rate should be extremely low, which may play well with some would-be voters on both sides, so as to reduce spending and limit the size of the government. One may wonder, after listening to Rep. Paul, what the purpose of the government would be ultimately.

If the polls are any indication, Romney will likely win Florida’s primary today, with Newt Gingrich coming in second. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum appear to be neck-and-neck for third. One this is certain however: we will know the outcome in the next twelve hours.

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