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Evangelicals split on GOP field

Leaders of the Christian right are hoping they can eventually join forces to stop Giuliani.

October 01, 2007|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Barely three months before the voting for a new president begins, the religious right has yet to unite behind a Republican candidate, heightening concerns among evangelical leaders that social liberal Rudolph W. Giuliani will capture the party's nomination.

The splintering of religious conservatives, if it endures, could ease the way for New York's former mayor to emerge as the party's first nominee to explicitly support abortion rights since the Supreme Court legalized the procedure in 1973.

But the lack of a consensus choice for president is only one of the troubles facing conservative evangelicals, a powerful force within the GOP for more than a generation.

"It's low tide right now for our movement," said Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Assn.

Opportunities for the religious right to press its agenda suffered a blow when Republicans lost control of both chambers of Congress in last year's midterm election.

Making matters worse are sex scandals besetting Republicans who have championed family values, most recently Sens. Larry E. Craig of Idaho and David Vitter of Louisiana. Their troubles -- after the sex scandal last fall involving then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) that contributed to the GOP's midterm losses -- have diminished enthusiasm for the party among many social conservatives.

Also hobbling the religious right is the decline of the Christian Coalition of America. A mobilizing force in the 1990s, the South Carolina-based group has suffered financial setbacks and now plays a marginal role in Republican politics.

At the same time, evangelical leaders are roiled in internal debate over whether to broaden their agenda beyond opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Some argue that they have a responsibility to also fight poverty, AIDS and global warming.

"The old Christian right that automatically could be mobilized against a few issues -- that movement is being diluted," said the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, whose appointment as Christian Coalition president was cut short last year amid an outcry over his push to widen the group's focus.

In the presidential race, several of the lower-tier candidates have cast themselves as staunch supporters of the Christian right's priorities -- most obviously Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. But few observers see those candidates' prospects as realistic. And many social conservatives have doubts about the higher-profile contenders vying with Giuliani.

"There's just no enthusiasm for this crop of first-tier candidates," said Richard Viguerie, a veteran conservative activist and author. "Not one of them is a principled conservative, so why support them?"

Leaders of Christian conservative groups are threatening to back a third-party candidate in an attempt to stop Giuliani from winning the nomination, the New York Times reported Sunday.

Some evangelical leaders hoped that former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee could be their standard-bearer. But his early stumbles have raised doubts about his capacity to rally support. And some evangelical leaders have questioned his commitment to battling same-sex marriage and abortion.

James C. Dobson, one of the country's most influential evangelicals, told allies in a recent e-mail that Thompson could not "speak his way out of a paper bag."

"He has no passion, no zeal, and no apparent 'want to,' " the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family wrote. "And yet he is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!"

Also vying for the backing of the evangelical community is Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. His heavy spending on TV ads in Iowa, where religious conservatives dominate the GOP caucuses that traditionally launch the nomination contest, has vaulted him to the front-runner's spot in polls there.

But he is still struggling to surmount guardedness toward his Mormon faith and his switch to conservative stands on abortion, gay rights and other matters after campaigning in Massachusetts as a moderate on social issues.

"He's come to a lot of those positions late, and there's a lot of concern that he's come to those positions only for political convenience," said Danielle Vinson, associate professor of political science at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

Another Republican, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, seems a natural fit for evangelicals: An ordained Southern Baptist minister, he has deep ties to the religious right. But Huckabee's lackluster fundraising so far has made it tough to convince many that he is a viable contender.

For Christian conservatives, a GOP loss of the White House would end eight years of advances under President Bush. He has put two conservatives on the Supreme Court, signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, imposed restrictions on stem-cell research, and put political muscle to work for state bans on same-sex marriage.

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