By Alan Cooperman and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
As a former Iowa state Republican chairman, head of Iowa Right to Life and political director of Rep. Jim Nussle's losing gubernatorial campaign, Marlys Popma is an experienced political operative as well as an evangelical Christian.
So when the phone calls started from Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidates eager for her help in the crucial Iowa caucuses next year, she knew this was not an election she could sit out. "You're never going to find the perfect candidate," she said.
For many social conservatives, that is an understatement. Twelve years ago, Romney said he would be a more effective proponent of gay rights than Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.); seven years ago, McCain said the Republican Party had no place for "agents of intolerance" such as Jerry Falwell.
Popma, however, felt she had to make a choice, and it was McCain.
For McCain, it was a hard-won endorsement in a fierce competition with Romney to exploit the absence of an obvious social conservative front-runner in the Republican race. Both candidates are working hard to line up key supporters such as Popma, and much to the distress of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), candidates with stronger ties to party conservatives, they are succeeding.
"Winability is a bigger issue in this campaign because of the Darth Vader-like specter of a Hillary Clinton presidency," according to the Rev. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's policy arm. Evangelicals "want the most socially conservative candidate they can find, who can win," he added.
Romney, who is expected to formally enter the presidential race today in Dearborn, Mich., has been particularly aggressive. In October he held a casual gathering at his Boston home for a who's who of social conservative leaders. Falwell and evangelist Franklin Graham munched on sandwiches and sipped soup alongside former presidential candidate Gary Bauer and pastor Richard Lee of First Redeemer Church in Atlanta.
Romney will also host a private reception for Christian radio and television hosts during the National Religious Broadcasters' annual meeting next week in Orlando, and he is expected to be the commencement speaker at the Rev. Pat Robertson's Regent University in May.
Not to be outdone, McCain will be feted by Falwell at a reception at the religious broadcasters' convention, the latest sign of detente between onetime adversaries. Last May, McCain delivered the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University.
McCain and Romney have also done significant spadework to recruit well-regarded social conservative operatives to their cause. McCain has inked Marlene Elwell, who oversaw Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign in Michigan, and Judy Haynes, a former senior official in the Christian Coalition. Romney's team includes Gary Marx, a former head of the Virginia Christian Coalition who was the day-to-day coordinator of evangelical support for President Bush's reelection campaign.
But McCain and Romney have significant hurdles to overcome if they are to win the support of conservative Christians, who by one estimate make up a quarter of the electorate and at least 40 percent of the Republican base.
McCain has backed expanded stem cell research, blocked the "nuclear option" that would have allowed the Senate to hold up-or-down votes on the appointment of judges, and sponsored campaign finance legislation the Christian political community loathes because of its restrictions on election-related activity by grass-roots groups.
In endorsing McCain, Popma said she had her own checklist that he satisfied: The candidate had to be against abortion, in favor of defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and committed to appointing conservative judges to the federal bench. "This man is a social conservative," she said, "and he is the leading social conservative in the race who is consistent."
But James Dobson, founder of the Christian broadcasting powerhouse Focus on the Family, is not convinced. He told a Dallas radio station last month he prays that evangelicals will not "get stuck with" McCain as the Republican nominee. "Speaking as a private individual, I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances," Dobson said.
Romney faces a dual challenge in wooing social conservatives. First, he is Mormon -- a religion many evangelical voters view skeptically. Second, during his campaigns for the Senate in 1994 and for governor in 2002, he expressed support for abortion rights and gay rights, positions he has reversed since it became clear he would pursue the presidency in 2008.
According to several attendees of Romney's luncheon last fall, his Mormonism was not a major problem for the evangelicals in his den. What the assembled evangelicals really wanted to know, and what they mostly focused on, was whether Romney's recent stance against abortion is sincere, said Jay Sekulow, director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which frequently represents conservative Christians in church-state cases.
Romney told them he changed his mind about abortion during the debate over embryonic stem cell research, and he recounted a discussion with stem cell experts from Harvard in which he was offended by the casual, clinical way in which they spoke about the destruction of fetuses.
"He said it just hit him, suddenly and powerfully, that we are dealing with life," said Sekulow, who decided at the lunch to back Romney's campaign. "Some say this is flip-flopping. It's not. He just flipped. . . . I think it's from the heart."
The Rev. Rick Scarborough, a Texas-based Baptist preacher, is more skeptical. Scarborough, who runs the conservative advocacy group Vision America, was invited to the luncheon at Romney's house but used a scheduling conflict as an excuse not to attend. "I'm not prepared to get too terribly close right now, because I want to wait and see what the nature of Mitt Romney's conversion to social conservative issues is," Scarborough said.
In light of that skepticism, the Huckabee and Brownback campaigns hope they can overcome the perception that they cannot win, arguing that "we're viable if you make us viable," according to Land, the Southern Baptist leader.
Amid the near-constant pitches for support by the aspiring presidential candidates, some social conservatives are urging peers to refrain from any choice.
Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance, said he has been approached by several campaigns but has chosen to stay out of the endorsement game for now.
"Anytime you side with a candidate and work for them, you alienate people and you are not able to talk about the issues as much as you would like," Scheffler said.