Who's the Most Conservative GOP Contender? A Candidate Matrix

Here's what you need to know so far about the frontrunners of the Republican primary.

The GOP primary has seemed a million miles away, but after a pair of Iowa events—the debate in Ames on Thursday and the straw poll today—the race is much more tangible. Don't feel bad if you're just tuning in now. We've created a handy matrix* to help you visualize how the candidates relate to one another ideologically (and where they fall in relation to President Obama) on both fiscal and social issues. In the most conservative quadrant, it's a crowded field, which makes sense, given that primaries are all about pleasing your loyal base.

1) Michele Bachmann

Fiscal issues: Generally, Bachmann is extremely fiscally conservative, advocating a flat tax, leading the effort to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act, and refusing to vote "yes" on raising the debt ceiling down to the bitter end. But her hypocrisy stood in the way of a perfect score—her family has reportedly received farm subsidies and $137,000 in Medicaid money, and she voted for the economic stimulus before denouncing other stimulus bills later.

Social issues: Bachmann has taken extreme rightwing positions on everything from abortion to gay rights to immigration to the environment. In fact, she even signed a pact claiming black families were better off during slavery.

Key debate moment:Laying the smack down on Tim Pawlenty for questioning her record. We agree with her: Bachmann does indeed have a "very consistent record of fighting very hard against Barack Obama," and even when Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid "ran Congress," she "gave them a run for their money."

2) Jon Huntsman

Fiscal issues: Huntsman welcomed stimulus money as governor of Utah and was appalled at the news that GE didn't pay taxes, but otherwise he's a staunch fiscal conservative. His political career was spawned from his father's corporation, after all, and he introduced some pretty deep tax cuts in Utah (even if they didn't amount to a "flat tax" as he's claimed in the past).

Social issues: Hunstman has been turning liberal heads for his social politics, which are right-of-center and downright radical compared to his other competitors. He's as anti-abortion as they come (he's passed myriad anti-choice legislation, like a fetal pain law and a ban on second-trimester abortions). But he supports civil unions, cap-and-trade, and reasonable immigration policies. Most notably, he's made headlines for being one of the GOP's few anti-war candidates.

Key debate moment: When he made a moderate, state-based endorsement for civil unions—the only candidate to do so. "America can do a better job on equality," he said.

3) Mitt Romney

Fiscal issues: Romney has got some 'splainin' to do in terms of health care policy; Massachusetts' universal health care law was the model for the federal health reforms passed in 2009. But he makes up for it with his hatred of unions and love for the Bush tax cuts and corporations. Last week he declared that "corporations are people."

Social issues: Romney has waffled on abortion, running as a pro-choice governor a decade ago, and he has endorsed some moves to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, he's famous for changing his stance on a whole host of issues. Now that he's running in the primary again, he's leaning to the right on everything from civil rights to immigration.

Key debate moment: Smiling and nodding. As his fellow debaters sparred, he mostly played it safe and avoided confrontation.

4) Rick Perry

Fiscal issues: He hasn't even entered the race yet, but Perry, dubbed Bush 2.0, has been touting his fiscal-conservative bonafides. Based on his record as Texas governor, he passed both state budget cuts and property tax cuts, and has even called for the repeal of the 16th Amendment (although he also called for an increase in the state franchise tax, and took stimulus money from the federal government).

Social issues: Famous for being a climate-change denier, Perry is a social conservative on pretty much every issue. The one exception? He didn't think Arizona's draconian immigration law was the answer.

Key debate moment: He wasn't there; Perry hadn't yet announced his presidential bid.

5) Ron Paul

Fiscal issues: A professed fiscal libertarian, Paul gets nearly a perfect score for voting against the stimulus, the bank bailout, the auto industry bailout, consumer protections, new taxes, and Obama's health care bill. He's randomly thrown some money toward affordable housing, he thinks the government should get out of the way of business.

Social issues: He's super conservative on nearly every issue except for a big one: war. He's particularly against the U.S. involvement in Iraq, which he's called "ill-considered," "unnecessary," and "not worth the price of American lives." He's also been relatively quiet on immigration issues—until recently, anyway.

Key debate moment: When he passionately denounced the Iraq War and debuted his new, hard-line immigration stance.

6) Herman Cain

Fiscal issues: Since Cain has never held public office, we can only go on what he's said and done as CEO of Godfather's Pizza—and not many people are more pro-business and anti-government than CEOs of huge corporations. Given that Cain wants to phase out Social Security and abolish the IRS in favor of a 23-percent sales tax, we have no choice but to give him a perfect score.

Social issues: He toes the party line when it comes to most social issues, although he couldn't give a straight answer in the Ames debates when it came to his stance on war. He's firmly anti-abortion and anti-civil rights, especially when it comes to Muslim Americans. He even opposes affirmative action, despite the fact that he was denied admission to college because he was black. Now that's commitment.

Key debate moment: He didn't get much screen time, but Cain managed to utter one deep thought when asked about his harsh immigration comment: "America has got to learn how to take a joke."

7) Tim Pawlenty

Fiscal issues: The Minnesota governor is pretty damn conservative when it comes to cash: he's slashed state spending and vowed not to raise taxes (although he did raise some fees). He's been known in the past as a "Republican who cares about poverty," but that rep is more about rhetoric than policy. Like Romney, he's going to have to explain his initial endorsement of an individual health-care mandate to his base, which vehemently opposed the health care bill.

Social issues: Pawlenty is anti-abortion (except when the mother's life is in danger), anti-gay rights, and very pro-war, although he's going to have to live down his green past if he wants to fit in with people like Rick Perry. Then again, voters don't seem to give a shit about climate change, anyway, so it may not hurt him too much.

Key debate moment: His spat with Michele Bachmann was just as important for his campaign as hers; he definitely came across as the meaner Minnesotan.

And for some context....

Barack Obama

It's a little more difficult to assess where Obama sits on this chart, as presidents' achievements are constrained by what they're able to push through Congress. That said, here's how Obama stacks up to his GOP challengers, based on a mix of his professed beliefs and his administration's results:

Fiscal issues: The GOP has relentlessly vilified Obama as a huge spender, criticizing his stimulus bills and health-care plan. Obama has also been a big advocate for ending the Bush era tax cuts, a position that makes all of the GOP contenders balk. But he has yet to make any headway on raising taxes for the rich, and most of his spending has gone toward bailing out Wall Street and fueling three wars, rather than toward infrastructure or jobs programs. He did pass universal health care, but backed off when it came to offering a public option. Plus, he hinted at being okay with major budget cuts before the debt-ceiling debate even got started, which led to trillion-dollar cuts that Reagan would have envied. His mixed record puts him right-of-center when it comes to cash.

Social issues: We've seen a few major victories for women's and civil rights during Obama's presidency, including an official end to Don't Ask, Don't Tell, free birth control under the health care act, and a successful fight to keep federal funding for Planned Parenthood and the EPA (although the latter may be threatened in the last round of debt-reducing cuts). He's also appointed a diverse selection of judges. But his defense spending has gone up since Bush's presidency, and though he publicly denounced Arizona's draconian immigration bill, SB1070, a record amount of illegal immigrants have been deported under his administration. He's taken a few baby steps toward environmental protections, but he's suggested other initiatives that have been ignored by Congress.

*The numbers are a key, not a ranking. The candidates' matrix positions were determined by an algorithm of a one through five rating, five being the most conservative. The categories for fiscal issues were taxes, budget, corporation-friendliness, health care, and government programs. For social issues, they were abortion and sex, civil rights, war, environment, and immigration.