No perfect conservative in this field
Two related questions have dominated this year's bitter Republican presidential race: Is front-runner Mitt Romney a true conservative, and who will emerge as his principal conservative rival?
Earlier, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was Romney's main foe. Now it's former Sen. Rick Santorum. And, in the lead-up to Romney's Michigan and Arizona victories, the two seemed mainly concerned with questioning one another's conservative credentials.
Romney cites his record while governor of Massachusetts, declaring he balanced budgets without raising taxes and held the line against abortion rights. But Santorum accused him in last week's CNN debate of raising taxes and fees by $700 million.
Romney retaliated by accusing Santorum of voting five times to raise the national debt ceiling, to fund Planned Parenthood and to expand the Department of Education.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas weighed in by calling Santorum "a fake" for voting differently from campaign statements, citing his vote for former President George W. Bush's education bill.
Santorum replied by noting that the conservative National Taxpayers Union called him "the most fiscally conservative senator" during his tenure. But National Journal shows his conservative score dropped to roughly 70 percent in his last three Senate years.
The truth is that, if measured against perfection in the three areas that conservatives stress — social issues, taxes and spending, and national security policy — all four GOP candidates are flawed conservatives with both strengths and weaknesses.
Here's a closer look:
Mitt Romney: His current fervent conservatism overlooks Romney's main problem: his past. Many Republicans simply don't trust his conversion.
Until 1994, he was a registered independent who voted in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary for Paul Tsongas. When challenging Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994, he said he would outdo him in protecting gay rights. In 2002, when running for governor, he promised to protect a woman's right to choose.
Later, he became an opponent of abortion rights, and he also opposes same-sex marriage and civil unions. But his Massachusetts health plan became a model for President Obama's. Unlike many Republicans, he supported Bush's 2008 bank bailout, but he opposed Obama's auto company rescue.
Rick Santorum: A favorite of GOP social conservatives and a national security hard-liner, his deviations are economic.
He is popular with tea party activists, despite their criticism of Republicans who voted to expand government and increase the deficit during the Bush presidency.
Santorum not only voted for Bush's education bill but for the multibillion-dollar prescription drug program under Medicare. He cast many votes for earmarks, including Alaska's notorious "bridge to nowhere."
Ron Paul: Paul has a consistent record opposing domestic spending. But he has run astray of many conservatives by also urging cuts abroad.
Taking positions closer to Democratic liberals, he opposed the U.S. attack on Iraq, wants to bring all U.S. forces home from Afghanistan and would cut troop levels sharply elsewhere overseas.
His libertarian views on drugs differ from the calls by most conservatives for stricter enforcement, and he opposes hard-line immigration policies.
Newt Gingrich: The former House speaker became a conservative hero by leading the Republicans' 1994 election victory gaining control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
But his speakership was marred by ethics charges, complaints he was a poor manager and compromise efforts with Democrats that helped pass some landmark welfare reform and tax cut bills but also prompted complaints that he was abandoning pure conservatism.
Like Romney, he once supported requiring everyone to buy health insurance, which has become a major GOP target as the centerpiece of Obama's health law.
And critics said his firm's $1.6 million contract to provide strategic advice to embattled housing giant Freddie Mac epitomized the unholy alliance between Washington politicians and private interests. His immigration position is more moderate than Romney's.
No wonder it's been so hard for Republican voters to find the perfect conservative. There isn't any in this field.