By Michael D. Shear and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 19, 2007
For months, Republican presidential candidates such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and John McCain have courted evangelical Christians, meeting with religious leaders throughout the Midwest and the South.
Today, thousands of Christian conservatives will gather in Washington to confront the fact that none of the candidates has won them over.
For Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), the conference will be an opportunity to do what months of private meetings have failed to accomplish: become the consensus candidate for the evangelical movement, a key constituency of the Republican Party.
"At the moment, there's nothing but confusion every place I go," said Chuck Colson, who runs the Prison Fellowship, a national Christian ministry. "They lament the fact that there's no one candidate out there around whom evangelicals and conservative Catholics can sort of coalesce around and get excited about."
He added: "Nobody has rung the bell yet."
White evangelical Protestants represent about a quarter of the electorate, and they voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Political operatives say they are even more crucial to victory in a Republican primary.
The Republican hopefuls have arrived at Frank Page's doorstep one at a time for months. But after meeting with each of them, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of the First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C., remains uneasy and unsure about his choices.
Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, has shown up twice at his office. McCain, a senator from Arizona, saw Page early this year. And this summer, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani spent two hours at a country club near Page's church explaining why he supports abortion rights and hearing Page talk about the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Even as he resists pressure to pick a candidate, Page is fielding calls from national leaders such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who recently threatened to support a third-party candidate if Giuliani is the nominee. Page said Dobson called him recently, almost despondent about a nominating process that has so far not produced a clear favorite for Christian conservatives. And it appears that today the GOP field will lose one of the men who have been aggressively targeting Christians, as Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) is expected to drop out of the contest.
"There is a great deal of angst about who will come forward and be electable, and also close to the social views and moral views we believe in," Page said.
This weekend's conference -- put on by the Family Research Council, a Washington-based group that organizes conservatives on issues such as same-sex marriage -- will highlight the uncertainty among activists and the sense of urgency among the candidates.
Romney, who this week picked up the endorsement of Bob Jones III, the chancellor of Bob Jones University, is viewed with suspicion by some evangelicals because he had previously supported abortion rights, a stance he has since disavowed. Polls suggest that his Mormon faith is also a concern among some evangelical voters.
Thompson, who worked to emerge as a favorite among Christian conservatives this summer, disappointed many by refusing to endorse a federal ban on same-sex marriage and flubbing a question about Terri Schiavo, the subject of a Florida right-to-die case.
"This summer, it looked like Thompson was going to gobble up the social conservatives," said one GOP adviser who has close ties to social conservatives. "They were his to lose, and unfortunately he's been losing them."
In South Carolina, where Republicans will vote Jan. 19, the presidential hopefuls have engaged in aggressive campaigns to win over evangelical leaders.
Thompson and McCain have appeared on Tony Beam's "Christian Worldview Today," a radio show based in South Carolina.
Kristin Maguire, a leading social conservative and GOP activist, said she received a personal call from former senator James M. Talent (Mo.) on behalf of Romney, the first Mormon candidate to have a serious shot at the presidency.
"He called into South Carolina on behalf of Romney to get over the whole Mormon issue," Maguire said this week. "That's kind of a stumbling block for some Christian conservatives."
Giuliani's challenge is far more complicated. He has repeatedly proclaimed his desire to win over religious voters in spite of differences on issues such as abortion, stem cell research and gay rights. But as he attempts to build bridges to Christian leaders nationally, local conservative activists say they see little evidence of those efforts at the ground level.
For many of those traveling to Washington, the goal is simple: prevent Giuliani from becoming the Republican nominee.
"He has done everything to . . . put his finger in our eyes and tell us this constituency does not matter," said Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance.
Scheffler said he refused to invite the former mayor to an event his group held last month after a series of snubs that included Giuliani's absence from a forum in June, his refusal to appear at house parties the group holds and the campaign's refusal to fill out a questionnaire.
John Stemberger, an Orlando lawyer and conservative Christian who is active in politics in Florida, said: "Every other candidate has been at least pandering at some level. I am not aware of a single effort [by Giuliani's campaign] to reach out to evangelicals, or Catholics for that matter."
Drew McKissick, a Christian activist and Romney supporter, sent an e-mail to South Carolina evangelicals urging support for Romney and saying, "If it turns out to be Giuliani and Hillary [Clinton], we've got two pro-choice candidates, and that would be a disaster."
Several national religious leaders have also condemned Giuliani's views. Tony Perkins, who heads the Family Research Council, has called Giuliani "indistinguishable" from Clinton, a senator from New York and his Democratic rival.
Last month in Salt Lake City, a group of conservatives that included Dobson discussed running a third-party candidate if Giuliani is the GOP nominee. Sources said several prominent Christian conservative leaders are planning to meet again this weekend after Giuliani's conference speech to determine if they need to throw their weight behind another candidate.
"A lot of people are going to vent at that point," said Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist who helped found the Moral Majority.
At a news conference Wednesday where he accepted the endorsement of Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), Giuliani said he is eager to win the votes of Christian and evangelical voters despite differences on some key issues.
"Of course you go to all of those states and you go to all of those voters, and you reach out your hand and you tell them what you believe you can do," Giuliani told reporters. "I go to them and I'm honest with them, and I tell them we don't agree about everything. They know there are one or two areas where we don't agree."
Aides say his speech to the conference Saturday morning will be an effort to highlight areas of common ground. They expressed confidence that Giuliani can win evangelical voters whose concerns include security, terrorism, leadership and the economy.
Recent polls suggest they may be right. A recent Washington Post-ABC News survey showed Giuliani tied with Thompson for the lead among white evangelical Protestants. Among that group, a majority said Giuliani's views on most issues are "about right."
But in the same surveys, more than a quarter of evangelical voters say they have not yet settled on a Republican candidate.
"Our voters would rather stay home than vote for half a loaf of bread," said Bill Stephens, the executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida. "They either want the whole loaf, or they'll wait for next time."