Events of the last couple days suggest that the 2012 crop of GOP presidential candidates is going to provide us religion reporters with a lot more fodder than their counterparts did last time.
That’s probably because they’re a more publicly pious group. In the 2008 election, you had frontrunners like McCain and Giuliani who made a lot of religious conservatives either annoyed or bored. This time, with almost the whole slate lining up against same-sex marriage and abortion rights, insiders are suggesting that the field appears very open and that candidates will have to have to work very hard to distinguish themselves to religious conservatives.
In the news now:
_ News trickling out of meetings among prominent evangelical leaders show them looking for a candidate, compared with 2000 when George W. Bush had the evangelical vote locked up early.
_ Rick Perry initiating a huge prayer rally in early August to urge Americans to come together “and call upon Jesus to guide us.”
_ Tim Pawlenty yesterday released a video that strongly emphasizes him as a prayerful Christian man but also seems designed to distinguish him from Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, whose Mormon faith remains a drawback to some evangelical Christians.
_ There’s some buzz on-line about an Atlantic article noting that Michele Bachmann has been a member of a conservative Lutheran denomination that uses some unfortunate wording in describing why Protestantism rejects the Catholic papacy: Calling the pope the Antichrist.
Mark DeMoss, a longtime communications czar in the Christian conservative world who is now advising Romney (actually, he did last election, too), told me he thinks “six to eight of the [GOP] candidates share my values on almost everything,” by which he means they are pro-life and anti-same sex marriage. He is counting on the theory that religious conservatives will see the candidates – including Romney – as similar on those issues and will instead focus on things like governing and business leadership, where Romney has strong credentials. DeMoss sent a memo earlier this year to thousands of religious conservatives laying out that argument, essentially, which he called “A New Litmus Test.”
Warren Smith, associate publisher of the conservative evangelical magazine World, says he expects Romney to be one of the two or three GOP candidates left standing, even as Smith has made a public case for why evangelicals shouldn’t vote for a Mormon.
I’ve been interested in the way in which the subject of Islam will play out among the Republican field – we already have a relatively good sense of how Obama talks about this subject. Both in terms of how candidates will engage the plethora of Muslim leaders vying for constituency in post-revolution spots like Egypt and Tunisia, as well as how they will engage with the small but vocal group of voters who believe Islam itself is a threat to America.
My interviews thus far suggest this won’t be a litmus test for most Christian conservatives, but that could change depending on news, explosive videos, etc.