Paul West, Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Des Moinesâ€”Â Mitt RomneyÂ has a 59-point economic plan.Â Newt GingrichÂ promises “very big solutions.” But to a large, and increasing, extent, issues aren’t driving the fight for the Republican presidential nomination.
With Iowans about to cast the first votes of 2012, issues have declined in importance as a factor in the campaign, according to a recent national opinion survey ofÂ Republicans. Instead, the GOP contest reflects an intensifying search by voters for the candidate they believe has the strongest chance of unseatingÂ President ObamaÂ next November.
That’s a departure from some past elections, when policy positions split the party.
Republicans currently regard Romney and Gingrich as the candidates best able to defeat Obama, according to the latest CNN/Opinion Research survey. Yet each man is picked by fewer than 1 in 4 GOP voters as the candidate that they are most likely to agree with on the issues they care about most.
Even more notably, the salience of issues as a way of sorting through the crowded GOP field has declined sharply over the course of the pre-primary campaign.
In June, Republicans said a candidate’s stance on issues was just as important as the leadership skills and vision a candidate would have as president, according to CNN/Opinion Research. By mid-December, a candidate’s stand on issues mattered to barely 1 in 3 voters. In the same poll, twice as many Republicans ranked leadership skills as more important.
That shift reflects, at least in part, the influence of the 13 televised debates, in which the Republican contenders have largely failed to draw meaningful differences over issues or highlight new ideas, even when they have them. Instead of revolving around a galvanizing issue, the GOP race has been shaped by the overall tone of the debates and the perceived authenticity of the candidates as foes to Obama.
The policy discussion in the campaign “is fairly stale: Cut spending. Cut taxes,” said Doug Bandow, an analyst with the libertarianÂ CatoÂ Institute. “I haven’t heard that much that is new.”
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