By Michael D. Shear and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 8, 2007
The endorsements of two Christian conservative leaders yesterday underscored the fractures that remain among evangelical voters less than two months before the first votes will be cast in the Republican presidential nominating contest.
Pat Robertson, the television evangelist who founded the Christian Coalition and once ran for president himself, threw his support behind former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, saying the "overriding issue" in the race is defending against the "bloodlust of Islamic terrorists" and calling abortion "only one issue" of importance.
Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), a former White House hopeful and a favorite among some conservative Christian voters, endorsed Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), whose relationship with evangelical voters was once tarnished when he called Robertson an "agent of intolerance."
Despite efforts by some conservative Christian leaders to unify behind a candidate -- including threats from a few to create a third party if Giuliani becomes the nominee -- no single Republican appears to be winning the lion's share of support in that community.
Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich is backing former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for president. Christian activist Gary Bauer, who ran for president in 2000, is with former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee. Baptist leader Rick Scarborough has endorsed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
"We have seen all along that social conservatives are divided among the potential Republican nominees," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster not affiliated with any campaign. "This reinforces that division."
McCain's campaign hailed Brownback's endorsement as a boon for the senator's efforts in Iowa, where he has lagged badly in the polls. "Senator Brownback has a big following in Iowa," said Dave Roederer, chairman of McCain's Iowa campaign. "This sends a strong signal that Senator Brownback believes . . . McCain would make the best president."
Robertson stood by Giuliani yesterday to pledge his support for a man he said would attack out-of-control federal spending, appoint conservative judges, reduce crime and fight terrorism. Not once did Robertson mention abortion, same-sex marriage or gun control -- three issues on which Giuliani's stances are frequently criticized by social conservatives.
In an interview after his announcement, Robertson, the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, said he hopes his decision will help unite people of faith. "Abortion is important, but it's only one issue," Robertson said. "Given the fractured nature of the process, I thought it was time to solidify around one candidate."
Connie Mackey, a senior vice president of the Family Research Council, disputed Robertson's contention that Giuliani was an acceptable candidate for Christian conservatives.
"This is a man whose supporters basically are pro-family, pro-life, pro-traditional-marriage, and here he has stepped away from them to endorse a candidate who has been very honest in saying he does not support those issues," Mackey said of Robertson. "It's beyond puzzling -- it's a little strange."
Senior Giuliani aides said they believe they can use Robertson's endorsement to buck conventional wisdom, which has long held that socially conservative voters will not embrace the former mayor on Election Day.
"It provides a great rebuttal point," Ayres said.
But Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said a recent poll suggests the endorsement is unlikely to move many voters to Giuliani's column and may antagonize some supporters. Among 1,000 Republican voters, respondents split almost evenly on the question of whether they were more or less likely to vote for a candidate who received Robertson's endorsement. And by a 3 to 1 ratio, current Giuliani supporters said they would view the endorsement negatively.
"Robertson has clearly become a polarizing figure in the party, and even more polarizing for Giuliani voters," Fabrizio said.
That may come in part from a series of controversial comments Robertson has made over the years. "We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government," he said after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "And, then we say, 'Why does this happen?' Well, why it's happening is that God Almighty is lifting his protection from us."
Robertson is seen by as many as 800,000 people a day on his "700 Club" talk show. But Clemson University political scientist Laura Olson said his influence among Christians has waned.
"That the Christian Coalition is a shell of its former self is the most you can say about it," she said.
Richard Land, a senior official at the Southern Baptist Convention, said Robertson's endorsement probably reflects a belief by the TV evangelist that Giuliani is the candidate most likely to beat the Democratic nominee.
"Pat Robertson may have decided that Rudy Giuliani is the best way to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House," Land said. "I'm not going to vote for Rudy under any circumstances."
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.