Christian right scatters support in Republican primary
Christian conservative leaders, unable to coalesce around a single candidate, instead are spreading their blessings among several Republican presidential hopefuls — and drying up talk of a third-party “Christian values” ticket.
The Rev. Donald Wildmon, who founded the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss., and whose evangelical Christian message reaches several million radio listeners and Internet subscribers, threw his support to Mike Huckabee on Nov. 8.
That support comes a day after the Rev. Pat Robertson shocked fellow evangelicals by endorsing Rudolph W. Giuliani, the only prochoice Republican running.
Merrill Matthews, an evangelical Christian and health care policy analyst at the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, said Mr. Robertson’s endorsement can mean one of two things: “Either abortion is no longer the defining issue for evangelicals that it used to be or the fear of a Hillary Clinton presidency is so great that at least some evangelicals will compromise on a threedecades-old non-compromisable principle to beat her.”
The doling out of endorsements began Nov. 5 when Paul M. Weyrich, who holds a regular Wednesday meeting of conservative leaders in Washington, gave the nod to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who ended his run for the Republican nomination last month, on Nov. 7 embraced Sen. John McCain of Arizona. James Dobson, whose Focus on the Family reaches millions of followers through radio and newsletter subscriptions, was expected to reveal his choice soon.
The Robertson endorsement is considered a clear signal that the evangelical broadcaster thinks that the former New York mayor will emerge as the Republican nominee next year and is the candidate most capable of defeating Mrs. Clin- ton in the fall.
“The theme of the endorsements of both Giuliani and McCain seem to be less about conservative beliefs and more about who can beat Hillary,” said Jessica Echard, executive director of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. “For Republicans to use that criterion is to hand over the primary process to the Democratic Party, rather than to the grass roots.”
“Eagle Forum is in no hurry to endorse a candidate,” Miss Echard said. “We are still one year from the general election.”
But some Republicans professed to see value in Christian right leaders ending up all over the map.
“This really indicates a maturing of the social conservative leaders in one sense: that they don’t all fit into a phone booth and that they don’t all fit into a mold,” Republican elections lawyer Cleta Mitchell said. “The absence of a lock-step devotion to the same candidate makes social conservative leaders important to whichever candidate is endorsed. That is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
Mr. Matthews said the endorsements show that the Christian right has a pragmatic side and is not as rigid an ideological movement as it is portrayed.
Mr. Robertson has a history of endorsing the ultimate winner of the Republican presidential nomination fight, including Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000.
Mr. Robertson’s influence is not widespread as it once was. His “700 Club” reaches millions of viewers five days a week, but he is no longer associated with the Christian Coalition, which he founded after his failed Republican presidential nomination run in 1988.
Many evangelical leaders across the country e-mailed each other expressing their shock over the surprise move by Mr. Robertson, who has built a reputation as a protector of the unborn.
The practical effect of Mr. Robertson, still a major figure on the evangelical right, has less to do with how many followers he can turn out next November and more to do with the stamp of approval he puts on pro-life voters tapping the screen for a pro-choice candidate.
“Many evangelicals have been saying quietly that given the choice between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, they would vote for Rudy,” Mr. Matthews said. “Pat Robertson’s endorsement frees them up to say so publicly.”
Best bet: The Rev. Pat Robertson surprised many evangelicals when he endorsed abortion rights supporter Rudolph W. Giuliani for the Republican presidential nomination.