Keeping the Faith
Evangelicals know what they want in a candidate. But the current crop may not have it.
Even before recent disclosures about what an ardent gay-rights and abortion-rights supporter Romney had been, some activists were dubious of his conversion to social conservativism. "Bush had a pretty consistent record of being pro-life and pro-family-it wasn't perfect, but it was consistent," says Farris. "Romney is not even in the ballpark."
That's where the McCain campaign sees its opening. In the past month or two, McCain has hired a handful of staffers to make the case to religious conservatives that McCain's antiabortion record in the Senate makes him a trustworthy alternative to Romney. McCain recently told a South Carolina audience that Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and he has been lobbying the National Right to Life Political Action Committee for an endorsement. That effort has so far failed to bear fruit, but McCain's pitch is resonating. "One's record is a good indicator of future performance," said Perkins after emerging from a meeting with McCain at the National Religious Broadcasters conference. "The senator does have a pretty solid record on the life issues."
McCain has begun tying his support for states' rights on the issue of abortion to his view that states should decide how to deal with gay marriage. But his opposition to the so-called Marriage Protection Amendment isn't McCain's only sticking point with religious conservatives. Grass-roots groups like Focus on the Family loathe the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law because they say it restricts their ability to communicate with constituents before elections. And, despite McCain's recent buddying up with Jerry Falwell, many activists are still sore over his "agents of intolerance" excoriation of Christian conservatives in 2000. "People say, 'McCain hated us then,'" says Weyrich. "'How do we know that he doesn't still hate us?'"
Faith. Unlike Romney, an active member and former official in the Mormon Church, the Episcopal McCain rarely speaks about his religious life. That's another possible stumbling block among religious conservatives, whose favorite politicians, like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, discussed their faith openly. Though McCain's aides say he will avoid talking about his religion, he does, in sessions with religious conservatives, tell of his role as an unofficial chaplain among his fellow POWs during the Vietnam War.
Of course, with his well-known defense credentials, McCain stands to benefit if, in the first competitive post-9/11 Republican presidential primary, issues like abortion and gay marriage take a back seat to terrorism and national security. That certainly appears to be Giuliani's calculus. The former New York mayor has been on a hiring spree, but he hasn't brought aboard staff to court religious conservatives. (His campaign notes that Giuliani will speak at Robertson's Regent University in Virginia Beach this spring.) Giuliani has stressed that he would appoint "strict constructionists" to the judiciary, an important cause for social conservatives, and his staff says he holds some positions-like opposing gay marriage and the procedure critics call "partial-birth" abortion-that will appeal to religious conservatives. But his campaign believes the '08 Republican primary will see candidates' leadership qualities overshadow their stances on hot-button issues. "Rudy is moderate on social issues, and despite that, he's leading in the polls," says Bill Simon, a top Giuliani adviser. "This is a time when people feel uncertain about the international situation and want to know the person in the Oval Office is up to the task, even if they don't agree with him on everything."
If Giuliani winds up harnessing enough moderate Republican support to win the nomination, the GOP will have another problem on its hands: how to get evangelicals to the polls in the general election. "Evangelicals just won't vote" if Giuliani is the nominee, says the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land. "He'll lose Ohio, perhaps Tennessee-maybe even Texas." To Christian conservatives, it's a losing formula. But they still have to find a winning formula that includes them.