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Christian GOP on Giuliani: Judge not, lest we lose in '08

April 23, 2007|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

PELLA, IOWA — A highway sign outside this small town calls it "a touch of Holland." A few windmills later, Bruxvoort's furniture store and Vander Ploeg's bakery attest to Pella's tight bonds with the Netherlands.

But if Pella, abuzz in tulip festival preparations, stands out with its colorful display of Dutch heritage, its politics are typical of many towns in rural Iowa: Conservative Christian Republicans hold sway.

So it comes as little surprise that appliance repairman Bernie Veenstra, 48, and many other evangelical Christians here cast a wary eye on Republican presidential hopeful Rudolph W. Giuliani, the combative former New York City mayor with liberal views on abortion and gay rights.

"He's got that New York mentality -- that's why I don't like him," Veenstra said. "Around here, it's family, pro-life."

But in conversations with Republicans here in the first state to vote in the 2008 presidential race, the more striking thing is how evangelicals Carolyn Vande Voort, Joy Milby and Mike Brown see Giuliani: They disagree with him on social issues, but lean toward him anyway.

And therein lies a startling aspect of Giuliani's candidacy: Nationwide, he is the No. 1 choice of white conservative Christians for the Republican nomination. A Times poll this month found 26% of them favor Giuliani -- more than double the portion supporting either of his top rivals, John McCain or Mitt Romney.

Giuliani's improbable appeal to these culturally conservative voters suggests that they may pose less of a threat to his quest for the nomination than widely assumed. His lead among those voters is partly circumstance; no other Republican has consolidated their support.

But it also demonstrates the potency of his tough-on-terrorism message among conservatives who prize strong leadership on national security.

"You want someone who's demonstrated character," said Mike Brown, a Pella city employee walking past tulip beds in the town square, on his way to lunch at In'tveld's diner.

Brown, 56, thinks Giuliani is wrong on abortion, but he wants a president who will cope with crisis the way the mayor responded to the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001. "Just being able to remain calm, dispatch the people, handle the situation -- those are things I really find favorable," Brown said.

Some evangelicals are also willing to ignore Giuliani's liberal social views because they sense that he gives Republicans their best shot at holding the White House in an otherwise dismal election climate for the party.

"We have some differences, but he's electable," said Milby, 34, who was picking up her children at the Pella Christian Grade School one recent afternoon.

Still, in a measure of conservative dissatisfaction with Giuliani and his primary opponents, the Times survey found that 22% of white conservative Christian Republicans preferred former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee for the party nomination. The "Law and Order" television actor, a social conservative, has not said whether he will run, but Milby, for one, would gladly switch to Thompson if he does.

"He has the whole package -- conservative -- compared to Giuliani," she said.

For Giuliani, the prospect of another Republican rallying the conservative Christian vote poses one of the biggest challenges to his quest for the nomination, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina, another conservative state with an early presidential contest.

"Anybody who suggests that Rudy is going to be able to skate by his support of abortion on demand, support of gay rights, support of gun control ... just doesn't understand Republican primary politics," said GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio. "Those are some very, very substantial hurdles."

To overcome them, Giuliani has been moving to the right. Last week, he praised the U.S. Supreme Court for upholding a ban on a controversial abortion method, breaking with his 1997 vow to oppose any such ban. At an Alabama campaign stop earlier this month, he said it should be left to states to decide whether to display the Confederate flag. Once an advocate of national gun control, Giuliani now says restrictions on firearms should also be left to states.

Yet in recent conversations about Giuliani in Iowa, Republican evangelical Christians were quick to criticize his stands on abortion and gay rights, along with his tumultuous marital history.

"I would not vote for Rudy, because he's been married and divorced twice," said Norman Nieuwsma, 73, a retired postal clerk who was buying a gold coin honoring the town's 2007 tulip queen. "It's a Christian issue. When you take the oath -- for better or worse, until death do us part -- that's what it means."

Parishioners at a Des Moines church made similar remarks after a recent Sunday morning service. More than 1,000 congregants gather each week at the nondenominational First Federated Church, where a choir and rock band perform praise songs and the crowd sings along, following the words on a jumbo TV screen.

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