Ever since James Dobson threw down the gauntlet against the Republican Party nominating a pro-choice presidential candidate, the focus has been on the intransigence of the religious right. Obdurate evangelical zealots are said to be tearing down GOP frontrunner Rudy Giuliani and paving the way for Hillary Clinton's presidency.
The real story is how feeble and ineffectual conservative Christian opposition to Giuliani has actually been. Less than four years after the phrase "values voter" entered into the political parlance, the GOP seems poised to nominate a thrice-married, pro-choice supporter of civil unions. In the not too distant past, Giuliani favored Roe v. Wade, taxpayer-funded abortion, and keeping partial-birth abortion legal -- all positions to the left of those taken by such legendary Republicans for choice as Gerald Ford and Barry Goldwater.
How have the supposedly intolerant paladins of the religious right reacted to the possibility that Giuliani will be the Republican standard-bearer in 2008? By saying maybe they'll vote for a third party and maybe they won't.
Now there's decisive leadership.
Religious conservatives might have avoided their presidential dilemma had they not dawdled for almost a year as their bete noire built up a lead in both the national polls and delegate-rich primary states. Now just months away from the Iowa caucuses, they are still dividing their support among four or five alternative candidates for the Republican nomination.
There are two factors at play here. The first is the increasingly obvious political ineptitude of many leading social conservatives. Giuliani's critics among this group have done very little to inform Republicans of his more liberal views. A New York Times/CBS News poll taken last month found that nearly half of GOP voters don't know where Giuliani stands on abortion. Earlier this year, a majority of the former New York mayor's own supporters in a Wall Street Journal poll said they would have reservations about voting for a pro-choice, pro-civil unions candidate.
The two most prominent religious conservatives in the GOP presidential race, Sen. Sam Brownback and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, have nevertheless been reluctant to say anything critical about Giuliani's record. When Brownback has decided to go on the offensive on social issues, it has generally been against fellow pro-life candidates (granted, some of them pro-lifers of recent vintage).
The second factor is Giuliani himself. He's simply not your father's Rockefeller Republican and cannot be campaigned against as such. On taxes, spending, and healthcare he is running well to Huckabee's right. His record in New York City contains conservative accomplishment on crime, tax cuts, and welfare that few of his rivals can match.
Giuliani has cleverly pitched himself as the Republican best equipped to confront two challenges that concern religious conservatives: Hillary Clinton at home and radical Islam abroad. Combined with assurances on judges and exceedingly minor rightward adjustments on abortion, he hopes to win at least a critical mass of social conservatives.
So far, these efforts are paying off. According to a Sept. 28 Gallup poll, Giuliani wins plurality support from self-described conservatives and voters who attend religious services regularly -- even though large majorities of both groups prefer other candidates.
Where does that leave the religious right? Dobson argues that their movement will be set back if the GOP nominates a candidate with Giuliani's social views. Gary Bauer, by contrast, has said he cannot imagine "a bigger disaster" than Hillary Clinton in the White House.
They could both be right. But if social conservatives don't get their act together, they will be complicit in their own marginalization.
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