Ron Paul, Rick Santorum Prove A Divided Republican Party in New Hampshire GOP Debate

The final presidential debate before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary showed that there was a schism brewing in the Republican Party.

Through an hour and a half of questions among the six GOP candidates, uniquely different brands of Republicanism were presented, ranging from Rick Santorum’s hard-line family values, to Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-Texas) pure libertarian platforms. Mitt Romney, who leads heavily in the state, seemed to be a middle ground, more moderate voice.

As the GOP presidential primary gets underway, it’s becoming clear that there is no single candidate that all rank-and-file Republicans can wholly stand behind. Instead, voters are being asked to choose between extreme social, economic, and foreign policy agendas or platforms that very much tend to lean to the left. There is no pure conservative among the pack who stands a chance at winning.

Early in the Sunday morning GOP debate hosted by partners Meet the Press, Facebook, and New Hampshire’s Union-Leader, host David Gregory asked, in almost Snow White fashion, who the truest Republican in the race was. The question set off a clash between Santorum and the more moderate Romney, in which Santorum hailed himself as a “90% conservative platform,” and claimed that Romney wouldn’t stand up for conservative issues.

Santorum, who lost by just eight votes in the Iowa caucus last week, trails by 20 points to Romney in New Hampshire. The type of conservative platform that likely helped Santorum in Iowa cannot sustain him nationally.

Romney, who holds as high as a 42% lead in New Hampshire in some polls, is rightly being questioned for his more moderate platforms. By no means a George W. Bush Republican, Romney in the debate seemed open to gay rights, stricter environmental policies, and the continuation of the current Social Security, Medicare and Medicade plans. Romney cited his brand of Republicanism as taking shape during his time working in a hugely Democrat and bi-partisan environment when he was governor of Massachusetts. But this more liberal version of conservatism may prove difficult to defend as the primary moves into the South later this month.

Throughout the debate, Paul touted an isolationist foreign policy, a more open social agenda on gay rights (Santorum, in comparison, said that he would be “respectful” of gays, sounding strangely like he would provide them with “separate but equal” status of something), and an economy more in line with the free market. Currently running second to Romney in New Hampshire, Paul is looking more and more like a national contender. Still, Paul can in no way be called a conservative. The hardcore conservative Santorum even went so far as to challenge Paul’s views, summing it up in saying, “All the things Republicans like about (Paul), he can’t accomplish, and all the things we don’t like about him he’ll implement on day one.”

Paul’s strong showing, though, is underlining that Republicans are deeply divided on the type of leadership and policies they want in the White House. Paul may be attacked by Santorum, but he maintains a wide appeal nationally. Libertarianism might find a home in the Republican Party, but as the race takes shape and Paul’s views dovetail significantly with more mainstream Republicans, it will be interesting to see if he opts to ditch the GOP and push on in 2012 as an independent.  

Proof that Paul was the white rhino in the room filled with red elephants was in the insignificance Paul was in this debate. The lion’s share of questions was fielded to Romney and Santorum, even though Paul holds as much as a 13-point lead in New Hampshire compared to Santorum. The number two clearly didn’t get second place status, and was instead sidelined.

Republicans have always been celebrated for their ability to rally behind a single candidate. But this year’s 2012 election is showing that Republicans will be divided. There is a schism in the party, and 2012 will be the year where Republican voters must choose between Santorum’s far-right rhetoric, Romney’s moderate platforms, or Paul’s completely unique Libertarian take on Republicanism. The rift, too, might be too much for Republicans to handle ahead of November’s elections.

Photo Credit: Peter Viderine