It's the latest twist in a presidential campaign full of surprises: Christian conservative leader Pat Robertson's endorsement of Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani. The question now is whether his approval will make much difference.
Aides to the former New York mayor—who were also dealing last week with fallout from the indictment of Giuliani's former police commissioner—said that last week's endorsement proved Giuliani enjoys broad support and that even social conservatives would embrace him despite his liberal stands on abortion rights, gay rights, and gun control.
For his part, Robertson, the former presidential candidate who founded the once mighty Christian Coalition, said the main issue isn't Giuliani's views on social policy but his perceived ability to stop the "bloodlust of Islamic terrorists." Robertson also said Giuliani would appoint conservative judges, reduce crime, and limit federal spending.
Says Randy Brinson, an evangelical leader: "I think people still respect him [Robertson], but he doesn't have the political sway he's had in the past, given some of the outlandish statements he's made." Among those statements, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, was his comment that God was "lifting his protection from us" because of grave moral lapses. Like others who know Robertson, Brinson said the endorsement of Giuliani was a reflection of "who he thinks will win."
But many Christian conservative voters, while they admire Giuliani's toughness and his strength on the national-security issue, remain deeply distressed by his liberal views. And many won't back him no matter what their leaders say, according to GOP pollsters and consultants.
Divided. Further, those leaders are split. Last week, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a prominent conservative on social issues and former presidential candidate, endorsed Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Paul Weyrich, cofounder of the Moral Majority, supports former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Christian conservative leader Gary Bauer, a former aide to Ronald Reagan and 2000 presidential candidate, backs former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention has said that he could not vote for Giuliani under any circumstances.
There is also the question of whether Robertson's support will alienate moderates, whom Giuliani has been courting across the country. Robertson is a polarizing figure for them, and Giuliani could be on dangerous ground if he appears to be cozying up. This is the same problem McCain had when he courted the religious right and disappointed supporters who had admired his independence.
The GOP front-runner also got some bad news last week when Bernard Kerik, his former police commissioner in New York, was indicted on charges of tax evasion and corruption. Kerik is pleading innocent, but Giuliani's critics seized on the event, saying it was evidence of the former mayor's bad judgment and his prizing of loyalty above all else. They pointed out that even amid accusations that Kerik had acted unethically and possibly even illegally in the past, Giuliani recommended him to President Bush to take over the Department of Homeland Security in 2004. Kerik withdrew his name amid questions about allegedly shady activities.
Giuliani admitted he should have looked more closely into Kerik's background and that he made other mistakes as mayor. But he told ABC News as he campaigned in Ames, Iowa, that he made far more good decisions than bad ones. "I must have been making the right decisions if the city of New York turned around, if crime went down by 60 percent, if homicide went down by 70 percent," he said.
For the candidate who still likes to be called "mayor," it has been a common theme: that he vastly improved life in Gotham and showed strength and decisiveness in the aftermath of 9/11. But as the fuss over Kerik has shown, his record in New York is a two-edged sword. Just like his support from Pat Robertson.