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Rudy and the Christian Right:
A Critical Encounter Saturday

Rudy Giuliani speaks at Houston Baptist University (Getty)

The evolution of religious conservatives as a force in American politics has been one of the most important developments of the past three decades, and a critical component of the success of the Republican Party's rise to power. The question now is whether that movement can survive Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani will appear Saturday before the Family Research Council's Values Voters summit in Washington for what some strategists believe could be the most important speech of his presidential campaign to date. It is both a critical moment for the former New York mayor and for the religious right.

Six months ago, religious and social conservatives might have dismissed Giuliani as a candidate because he is so far out of the GOP mainstream on the issue of abortion. Today, given his strength in national polls, that's no longer possible. In a matter of weeks, the issue for many religious and social conservatives may be reduced to, can anybody stop Rudy?

Christian conservative leaders repeatedly have expressed dissatisfaction with the entire field of Republican candidates, but it is Giuliani who most threatens the GOP coalition that has been assembled since Ronald Reagan was first elected in 1980.

That coalition is far different today than it was when the late Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority first came onto the scene, as is the movement that Falwell represented. In those early days, religious conservatives were an insurgency within the Republican coalition, highlighted by Pat Robertson's 1988 campaign for president.

Then they were outsiders seeking a voice in the Republican Party. Today they are fully integrated into the party structure. At first they expanded their power through almost hostile takeovers of county or state party organizations. But as their influence spread they became part of the Republican establishment.

Today religious and social conservatives are part of the backbone of local party leadership, no longer viewed as a kind of outside force that somehow threatens the structure of the GOP family. The effect of that is the diminishment of the leadership of the religious right.

Falwell and Robertson, through the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, exerted great influence on religious and social conservatives. Their words and their endorsements carried great weight. Today the leaders, whether James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, or Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, have far less power to move conservative voters en masse.

As one strategist familiar with the Christian right put it Friday, "You can't just push a button, and mobilize that vote. Today the mobilization of religious conservatives requires a more sophisticated, and more grassroots-oriented, strategy.

But even as religious and social conservatives have become fully integrated into the party structure, the balance of power within the GOP coalition has begun to shift. Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin notes that immigration, not abortion or gay rights, has become the "anger" issue inside the conservative coalition, a subtle but important difference in terms of how voters perceive candidates and how candidates mobilize coalitions.

At the same time, the economic conservatives are regaining some of the influence they lost as religious conservatives came to power inside the party. Many of them believe President Bush catered too much to the religious right and now have begun to reassert themselves in party debates. The combination of anger over immigration and frustration over government spending has given them a larger voice in the shaping of the party's agenda.

Finally, Bush's war on Islamic extremism animates religious and cultural conservatives. Abortion and gay rights remain of paramount importance, but the campaign against terrorism has risen to the top of the agenda of Republican voters of all stripes.

All of that may play to Giuliani's benefit: a Christian right leadership that may have less power to deliver a big vote for someone else; a rising voice for economic conservatives; a desire for a nominee who will implement an aggressive strategy to combat terrorist threats; and ultimately a powerful desire to prevent Hillary Clinton, if she is the Democratic nominee, from becoming president.

Certainly that has helped Giuliani sustain his strength in the Republican race to this point. The question is to what extent there will be a well-organized effort to stop him that coalesces around one of his rivals.

Party strategists remain divided about the impact of a Giuliani nomination on the GOP coalition. Some believe that with the right running mate and a carefully articulated approach to abortion and other issues, Giuliani could hold the coalition together. Others believe he would either splinter or demoralize the coalition, prompting either a third-party challenge or millions of conservatives choosing to sit out the election, jeopardizing Republican chances of winning critically important states like Florida or Ohio or Michigan or Pennsylvania.

That's why Saturday's speech could be one of the defining moments of the 2008 campaign.

By Washington Post Editor  |  October 19, 2007; 1:39 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take , Rudy Giuliani  
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Next: Report From the Values Summit: Thompson? Maybe....Not

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