George W. Bush has quietly assembled a cadre of prominent religious and social conservatives to blunt, if not mute, complaints from a segment of the Christian right that his presidential bid threatens the antiabortion and traditional family values movements.
These Bush proponents contend that his conservative credentials are impeccable, that he is committed to ending abortion and that his religious convictions are deeply held and openly declared.
"George Bush is going to help Americans rediscover our moral foundation," said John Hagee, who is pastor of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and has a national broadcast ministry.
"He is the real deal," said Marvin Olasky, a conservative social theorist.
Bush's conservative corps, which includes key leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, social activists and intellectuals on the right, could play a crucial role in the Texas governor's bid for the Republican nomination.
Bush's goal is to prevent a replay of recent nomination fights. In each of the past three GOP contests, the "mainstream" candidate has faced a challenge from the ideological right: Christian Coalition leader Pat Robertson in 1988, and television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan in 1992 and 1996. Buchanan's two bids seriously damaged the eventual nominees, Bush's father and Robert J. Dole. By the general election, each had been weakened and discredited among conservative voters.
In the 2000 election, a number of candidates are seeking to become the dominant challenger from the right, including Buchanan, Dan Quayle, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes. And Bush, if nominated, could face a third-party challenge in the general election. Bush and GOP leaders are worried that these developments could lead to either the defection of conservative voters or their failure to turn out on Election Day.
Anti-Bush forces on the hard right contend that he plays down abortion as an issue, that he rejects demands that he make opposition to abortion a litmus test for judicial nominees and that his free-trade positions call for too many concessions to communist and anti-Christian countries.
Conservative dissent has found expression in the decision of Sen. Robert C. Smith (N.H.) to abandon the GOP and run for president as a third-party candidate and in the increasingly angry comments of Buchanan and Bauer. For some conservative leaders, especially those who see the United States in profound moral decline, the Bush candidacy represents a threat almost as dangerous as the liberalism of Vice President Gore, who is running for the Democratic nomination.
"Obviously, if the party can succeed while showing disrespect for the pro-life position and the pro-family and pro-moral values position, then we have no representation at all, and that is what's being threatened at this time," said James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family. When Bush declines to make abortion a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees and when he declines to attack Clinton's appointment of a gay ambassador, "there are lights going out and he is going to need those lights," Dobson said.
"The moral center has shifted significantly, and the pendulum would not begin to swing back under a Bush presidency," said Free Congress Foundation head Paul Weyrich. "You expect liberal Democrats to behave like liberal Democrats, but when conservative Republicans behave like liberal Democrats, then there is reason to be concerned. . . . A successful Bush candidacy would probably be interpreted as a repudiation of people with strongly held views on values."
Bauer, for his part, accused Bush of being "a clone" of Gore and promised "to elevate the fact that on several key issues there's no difference between him and Gore."
Such comments worry a number of conservative Bush supporters. "We have to be careful as conservatives that we don't become like Pharisees and measure your conservatism by how many times you mention the pro-life issue, or talk about life issues at a Chamber of Commerce dinner," said House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.).
The conservative leaders in Bush's corner--not all of whom have formally endorsed him but who clearly are aligned with him--also dispute Weyrich's assessment of the Bush candidacy.
"Governor Bush has the ability to help shape the thinking of the American people from a point of deep conviction," said evangelist James Robison. He is convinced of Bush's opposition to abortion, contending he is in a position to evaluate Bush because his own conception was the result of a rape and his mother wanted for a time to abort him. "God had a purpose for me and He really values the desire to protect life," Robison said. Bush "is very much pro-life" and "believes that the attitude of America toward the value and sanctity of life has to be changed."
"I have known George Bush for many years, working with him on many issues," said Kay James, former dean of government at Pat Robertson's Regent University and now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "And I know that George Bush is a conservative."
At the moment, Republican polling of GOP voters shows that Bush's support is higher among voters who describe themselves as "very conservative," as "strong" Republicans and as fundamentalists or evangelicals than it is among moderates, secular Republicans and those who say they are "independent" or "weak" Republicans.
Catholic conservatives, such as author William Bennett, explain Bush's appeal. "He's pitched right: a cheerful conservative. Conservatives have to learn to smile more, accept the good news," Bennett said. The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus said he has been talking to Bush and he "intends to run a conservative campaign in a way that, as the lady says, 'doesn't frighten the horses.' " Without endorsing Bush, Neuhaus said, "I look forward to the prospect of a Bush presidency as something that holds very high promise."
Bush's conservative sympathizers, some of whom have been contacted by Ralph Reed, who once ran the Christian Coalition and is now a political consultant, include Carl Herbster, head of the American Association of Christian Schools; Richard Devos of Amway Corp.; Deal Hudson, head of the Morley Institute; and prominent Christian philanthropist Foster Friess.
Perhaps most impressive is the phalanx of Southern Baptist leaders sympathetic to, if not explicitly supportive of, the Bush campaign. These include Ed Young, former convention president; Paige Patterson, convention president; Richard Land, president of the denomination's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; and retired Texas judge Paul Pressler, who orchestrated the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1970s.
The real test of the conservatives in the Bush camp will come when Bush's rivals in the primaries and such critics as Dobson and Weyrich, who has endorsed Steve Forbes, begin to convey their views more strenuously to the general public.