Will GOP primary voters pick a winner in 2012?

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Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan framed the question as, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Since President Obama assumed office on January 20, 2009, the federal debt has risen by roughly $3.7 trillion, the cost of gasoline has more than doubled, and the national unemployment rate seems to be permanently stuck around nine percent. The question doesn’t need to be repeated for 2012 — we already know the answer. The question that GOP primary voters do need to ask as they survey the field of candidates is whether their families and wallets can survive another four years of Obama’s progressive fiscal agenda.

Regardless of how we label ourselves or how we label the candidates, we know that jobs and the economy will be the defining issues in 2012. National defense, family values and constitutional freedoms are no less important to conservatives this year than in years past. However, the immediate concern of righting the economy rightly overshadows all else. Barack Obama has repeatedly promised to focus on creating jobs, only to ignore the issue as soon as his teleprompter and microphone are turned off. Even the president’s progressive base has soured on his un-kept promises. Focusing the spotlight anywhere else than on the president’s policies, which are dragging down the economy, risks rekindling the passion in the liberal base and plays to the president’s advantage.

As Republicans begin to pick and choose among the field, it is important to remember the point of the nominating exercise — deny President Obama a second term. As Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour reminds us, purity tests will lead the GOP to defeat in 2012.

So how do Republicans unseat the president? We win by nominating a candidate who will make 2012 a referendum on Obama’s policies and executive record rather than a soap opera about the challenger’s own record and personality. As conservative author Shelby Steele notes, there are two Obamas — the candidate and the cultural icon. And there is no way that even a Superman or a Wonder Woman could defeat Obama the cultural icon. To achieve victory at the ballot box in 2012, the debate must be confined to Obama the candidate.

So who in the field is best suited to defeat Obama in 2012? There may not be a single candidate out there with whom any of us will agree on every single issue, but the GOP field has more strength than the media will admit. The Republicans’ best path to victory, without naming names, is to nominate a current or former governor who is strong on the economy and who can demonstrate message discipline even under the harshest media scrutiny.

If there is a Republican litmus test for 2012, it should be: Who can achieve victory in Florida? We’ll call it the “citrus litmus.” Several states are perennial battlegrounds on the electoral map. Team Obama would like to expand the fight into as many states as possible, but they will be pulling out all the stops in the Sunshine State. Likewise, without a victory in Florida, the eventual GOP ticket will be hard-pressed to stitch together a winning combination of states elsewhere on the electoral map.

Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are co-founders of CivicForumPAC and advisors to conservative candidates on Internet outreach, communications and campaign strategy.