GOP Hopefuls Wooing Religious Right
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 1999; Page A2
Three years ago, in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas told a prominent religious figure: "I ain't running for preacher. That's your job." The same year, Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes angered religious conservatives when he suggested the Christian Coalition "does not speak for most Christians."
The political environment has changed dramatically since then. Most of the Republican prospects for 2000 are vigorously courting the religious right in a year when polls suggest the public is yearning for a moral compass and virtuous leadership.
Potential GOP candidates for 2000 are more confident they will not risk a backlash from the broader electorate by talking about morality and values in the wake of the White House sex scandal, a number of campaign strategists, academic sources and Christian activists said in interviews this week.
Tonight, several potential GOP presidential candidates will be in New Hampshire for a Christian Coalition gala, featuring the organization's founder, Pat Robertson, to lay out their case for the need for moral leadership in America.
"I would say I think they are reaching out not only to Christians but to the population in general that is crying out for some moral authority," said Shelly Uscinski, chairman of the New Hampshire Christian Coalition. "I think there's been a vacuum left by Bill Clinton."
While polls have consistently shown President Clinton with a high job approval rating, a majority of American voters say they don't believe he has high moral or ethical standards or is a good role model. However, the country seems split over how important that is. A Washington Post/Harvard University/Kaiser Foundation poll found 50 percent of voters think a president has a greater responsibility than other leaders "to set a moral tone for the country." But 48 percent said as long as the president is doing a good job running the country, it doesn't matter.
A recent Pew Center poll showed that while the public now favors Democrats on issues including education and crime, Republicans have a clear advantage on morality. And though it is early in the process – the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary are a year away – some themes are starting to emerge. On the GOP side, one of the most obvious has been the effort to claim the moral high ground.
"It's not the economy, stupid – it's character," former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander told the 18th Annual International Christian Prayer Breakfast in Nashville this week.
Last month, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Northern Virginia, former vice president Dan Quayle declared, "It's not jobs; it's values."
Conservative activist Gary Bauer, an acolyte of the Rev. James Dobson, has signaled his intent to run a campaign that directly confronts moral issues, even those that are controversial or unpopular.
The theme has been percolating almost since the day Robert J. Dole lost the 1996 presidential election. In June, at a meeting of party activists in Iowa, several potential candidates tried to outdo one another on the morality/character question.
Forbes proclaimed the nation's biggest challenge was the "moral and spiritual crisis that threatens the very foundation of our free society." Sen. Robert C. Smith (N.H.) drew chuckles when he said: "We have a character in the White House. What we need is someone with character in the White House." And Rep. John R. Kasich (Ohio) suggested morality, not new laws, was "going to fix the things that bother us most."
The trend marks a seismic shift from the last two presidential races, when Republican candidates stuck mostly to traditional issues, such as crime, taxes and jobs, while courting increasingly influential religious conservatives at arm's length.
Tonight's gala nearly coincides with the release of a poll Christian activists have been buzzing about all week. The poll, conducted for the liberal Center for Gender Equality, suggests that 53 percent of American women now favor strict abortion restrictions. A plurality of women in the poll, 41 percent, said they believed the issues the Christian Coalition stands for would improve their lives. And 46 percent said politicians should be guided by religious values, up from 32 percent six years ago.
Christian Coalition executive director Randy Tate said the poll proves the electorate is yearning for strong moral leadership. At tonight's event, he said, he would "challenge all of the presidential candidates in both parties to move forward with this mainstream agenda of defending the unborn, fighting for tax relief and school choice."
That Bauer and former Reagan administration official Alan Keyes would attend such an event is hardly surprising. Both have long had ties to the Christian right. But Forbes has had an uneven, sometimes contentious, relationship with them. In 1988, he called Robertson a "toothy flake." And three years ago as he floundered in New Hampshire and Iowa, Forbes lashed out at Robertson and Patrick J. Buchanan, a favorite of the Christian right, accusing them of orchestrating calls to voters misrepresenting his position on abortion and other issues.
Since then, Forbes has so successfully made amends – stressing his opposition to abortion and support for school choice – that several Christian Coalition officials from around the country are planning to sign on to his presumed campaign, sources said. Andrea Sheldon, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition – notable in recent years for its opposition to gay rights causes – said recently that Forbes was her early favorite for 2000.
Social conservatives are determined this year to unite behind one candidate to avoid a repeat of 1996, when their dispersed interests made it easier for establishment candidate Dole to win the nomination.
John Green, a University of Akron professor who has extensively studied the religious right, said the 1996 presidential contest reinforced among GOP politicians the power of the religious right, noting that they helped shoot down the campaigns of Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and California Gov. Pete Wilson, who were seen as too moderate. Gramm too had trouble with social conservatives, despite his conservative credentials, after making the preacher comment to Dobson.
Green noted, however, that while potential GOP candidates are talking more about morality and values, they're keeping it vague. That's because while self-described Christian conservatives are a large chunk of the party, they're not a majority. Moving too far in their direction creates risks not only with Democrats in the general election, but with many Republican voters, particularly those in moderate states such as California and New York, he said.
"You don't hear them saying 'Make all abortion illegal,' or that all gay people should go back into the closet," he said. "You won't hear them endorsing the broad agenda of the religious right, because, frankly, it turns off even a lot of Republicans."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company