As Giuliani Gains, Search
For a Different Mr. Right
The growing anguish on the right over Rudy Giuliani's presidential candidacy signals a coming test of strength inside the Republican coalition that will help answer whether the power of religious and social conservatives has crested.
Eight months ago, all the smart money said Giuliani had no chance to win the Republican nomination because of his positions on abortion and gay rights. So improbable were his chances that many Republican strategists, including some involved in the campaigns of other candidates, doubted Giuliani would even pursue the nomination.
Today the strength of his candidacy has brought rare agreement between former President Bill Clinton and Dr. James Dobson, although expressed with different emotion. Both see him as a greater threat to win the GOP nomination than they had envisioned.
Over the weekend, Clinton admitted with some sense of admiration that Giuliani's candidacy has surprised him. "I think that Giuliani proved quite durable, and we don't know whether this will endure when they [his opponents] start to advertise," he said on NBC's "Meet The Press." "But he's been quite durable."
Giuliani's durability so alarms Dobson and other Christian conservatives that a small group of them meeting over the weekend let it be known that they would consider bolting the Republican Party to back an anti-abortion third-party candidate if Giuliani is the Republican nominee.
That scheme is far from hatched, but the evidence is clear that religious and social conservatives are nervous about their place in the party. For the first time in perhaps two decades, their influence is being called into question by the nominating contest.
One of the mythologies is that for many years religious and social conservatives have had de facto control over the Republican nominating process. That's hardly been the case. In Republican campaigns, the candidate of the establishment has generally emerged as the winner. Successful nominees, from George H.W. Bush to Bob Dole to George W. Bush have been acceptable to religious conservatives but not necessarily their first choice.
In office, Bush catered more to religious conservatives than any previous Republican president, including Ronald Reagan, and owed his 2004 reelection in part on his campaign's ability to mobilize and turn out religious conservatives in key battlegrounds. Through the first four years of Bush's presidency, the strength of the religious right appeared to reach new heights.
Two events have contributed to declining influence. First was the intervention by Congress into the Terri Schiavo issue, which led to a backlash among many others in the GOP family. They objected to the idea of religious and social conservatives seeking to dominate the party -- and public reaction to interference by the GOP-controlled Congress demonstrated the risk to the party of continuing on that course.
Terrorism also has changed the Republican landscape, elevating national security issues and diminishing the influence of social issues in the eyes of many conservative voters. One surprising element of the GOP nominating battle has been Giuliani's relatively strong support in South Carolina and some other states where religious conservatives hold considerable sway.
Polling in some of those states shows that conservative Republicans rank issues like abortion and gay rights farther down their list of priorities than in the past, according to GOP strategists. That obviously benefits Giuliani more than any other candidate.
Scandals and other factors also have robbed the social conservative movement of clear leadership. There is neither a group nor a single charismatic leader who has emerged as a dominant political force to carry the banner of social conservatives nationally.
Religious and social conservatives appear in disarray in part because they cannot agree on a candidate. Some of them had harbored hopes for a Newt Gingrich candidacy. Earlier in the spring, Dobson appeared to give his blessing to the former House speaker, despite his multiple marriages and confession of an affair.
Gingrich's weekend decision ending his flirtation with a candidacy leaves the social conservative constituency without a big-name candidate. Fred Thompson so far hasn't caught fire. Mitt Romney has too many questions about his past positions to make them feel comfortable and John McCain has never been seen as a friend. Two true social conservatives, Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback, have struggled to be taken seriously.
The result is a sense of panic on the part of some religious conservatives, which is why there is suddenly talk of a third-party candidate. GOP strategists doubt this will ever come to pass, even if Giuliani becomes the nominee. They argue that with the choice of a an anti-abortion running mate like Huckabee and no effort to change the abortion plank in the Republican platform, Giuliani could prevent the party from splintering over his nomination.
Whoever becomes the Republican nominee will need a mobilized religious right to win the election, particularly in holding southern states like Virginia or Arkansas that could become battlegrounds and to compete against resurgent Democrats in Ohio. But what some Republicans are asking is, at what cost?
As Clinton noted, Giuliani will not win the nomination unless he can survive a more direct attack on his social issue positions. But neither he nor his party can afford an all-out conflict with the religious right. How this quarrel plays out will shape the future of the Republican coalition -- and perhaps the party's chances of holding onto the White House in 2008.
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