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For GOP, Back-to-the-Future Week

Much has changed since Robertson himself ran for president in 1988 and helped bring religious conservatives into the Republican party. (AP).

What's most interesting about all the big-time endorsements this week in the Republican presidential race is what they say about the state of the party as the GOP nears the end of the Bush era. For the Republicans, this has been back-to-the-future week.

Rudy Giuliani claimed the biggest symbolic prize when he won the support of Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition. But his rivals weren't standing still either. Mitt Romney rolled out an endorsement from Paul Weyrich. John McCain countered by winning the backing of former rival Sam Brownback.

Endorsements never mean as much in the end as they seem at the time they are announced. Howard Dean is Exhibit A of that, having won support from two of the nation's biggest unions and the endorsements of Al Gore and Bill Bradley, only to see his campaign crater two months later.

For Giuliani, Romney and McCain, the endorsements came at a critical time. Giuliani hopes that winning the support of one of the most famous Christian conservatives in the country will go a long way to stilling talk that his support for abortion and gay rights disqualifies him from leading the party.

Weyrich's endorsement of Romney may be equally useful in helping to persuade evangelical Christians that a devout Mormon is worthy of their support, as well as overcoming the doubts about his conversion on abortion as he was getting ready to run for president.

Brownback's endorsement of McCain sends two messages that the Arizona senator needs most right now. One is simply to say that, after months of troubles inside his campaign, his candidacy is once again clearly viable. The other is to say to religious and social conservatives, as Brownback did, that McCain has a consistent record of opposition to abortion, in contrast to Giuliani or Romney.

First Falwell and then Robertson helped change the Republican Party, but that was decades ago. Falwell's Moral Majority brought religious conservatives into politics in the 1980s. Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign helped institutionalize the role of religious conservatives inside the party. Later his Christian Coalition demonstrated organizational prowess in helping GOP candidates win elections

Weyrich was part of the vanguard of the conservative movement when the right was beginning its rise to prominence and has been a leading voice ever since. He too holds a place of honor in the conservative constellation.

Turn the lens around, however, and the endorsements tell another story -- particularly when coupled with the very public rapprochement between McCain and Jerry Falwell in 2006, before Falwell's death. The story is of candidates seeking to negate weaknesses, not project strengths.

The current crop of Republicans has been forced to reach back in time for validation from leaders who have neither the power nor the influence they once had. And in Robertson's case, because of the many questionable or outrageous things he's said, support comes with baggage that Giuliani may regret having to carry.

Compare this group to George W. Bush in 2000 when he first ran for president. Bush wanted and needed support from religious and social conservatives, but knew also that Robertson and Falwell were controversial. Though they were quietly supportive of his candidacy, his campaign never staged the kind of endorsement event that Giuliani had with Robertson on Wednesday -- nor felt the need to do so.

Bush was then focused on reshaping a Republican Party suffering from an image problem created by Newt Gingrich and the congressional wing of the GOP. Whatever one may say about what has happened to the party during his presidency, at the time he was first running he recognized the importance of putting a new and forward-looking face on his party.

Contrast that to what some of the current candidates have done. Because of Bush's unpopularity, they have tried to reach back to Ronald Reagan for inspiration. Giuliani went to London and posed with Margaret Thatcher, whose influence in British conservative politics has clearly waned. Romney, McCain and Fred Thompson all have looked to the 1980s for inspiration and for political cover.

The Republican candidates are immersed in the politics of winning the nomination and gathering endorsements is part of the process. In a divided and demoralized party, any endorsement seems valuable and a few big names are especially prized.

But the eventual Republican nominee will have a larger problem to overcome. With each new survey there is evidence that the party has lost the confidence of the American people. Bush's presidency is certainly one reason, but beyond that is a lack of trust in the Republican agenda.

While this week's endorsements created a lot of buzz, the Republican Party of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich had its heyday many years ago and there is no indication that restoring the Reagan era is the path to success for the GOP in 2008.

The real challenge for all the GOP candidates is to move the party not just beyond Reagan but also beyond Bush. They can't do that without winning the nomination, which is why they're scrambling for endorsements among religious and social conservatives. But none has yet assembled the kind of broad, forward-looking message that may be required to overcome the deficits facing the party one year out from the election.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  November 8, 2007; 2:40 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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