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Candidate Endorsements Start Shaping Conservatives’ Role in ’08 Race

November 7, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: A vigorous, behind-the-scenes competition for Christian evangelical voters came into full view today, as former Christian Coalition head Pat Robertson threw his support to Rudy Giuliani, and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who just pulled out of the presidential race, endorsed fellow Senator John McCain.

For Giuliani, whose three marriages and support for abortion rights have alienated some conservatives, the Robertson endorsement was a key boost.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), Former Mayor of New York: He has tremendous insights into what the main issues are, how they should be dealt with. His advice is invaluable, and his friendship even more invaluable.

GWEN IFILL: Robertson ran for president in 1988 and mobilized Christian conservatives for a second-place finish in Iowa that year. Today, he called Giuliani “America’s mayor” and praised his toughness.

PAT ROBERTSON, Christian Leader: I think the overriding issue that we face in this nation is the Islamic terrorism. And I think, if we don’t realize that, America must be kept safe, and I think we want a leader who is strong against this threat of terror.

GWEN IFILL: For McCain, the endorsement from the Kansas senator who is popular among evangelicals, arrived as he struggles to stay afloat in national polls, in fundraising, and in the credibility contest for religious Republican voters.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: I think it matters when one of the most respected members of the United States Senate and in the pro-life, family values community lends his support to my candidacy.

GWEN IFILL: Christian conservatives have united behind one Republican presidential candidate ever since Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Robertson’s Christian Coalition rose to power in the 1980s. More recently, as President Bush’s overall popularity has flagged, so, too, has the intensity of his support among this key voting group.

Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was shut out of today’s round of endorsements, but he has received support from longtime conservative leaders Paul Weyrich and Bob Jones III. With the first voting now less than two months away, it remains an open question whether the endorsements will translate into votes.

Impact of conservative endorsements

Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr.
High Impact Leadership Coalition
One of the questions for our conservative community is, who do we trust? And it doesn't seem that anyone embodies all the values that we want to put forth.

GWEN IFILL: So are Christian conservative voters up for grabs this election year? For that, we turn to two pastors who are movement leaders. Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., founder and chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and co-sponsor of the recent Values Voters Summit, he is also co-author of the forthcoming book "Personal Faith, Public Policy."

And the Reverend Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church, near Orlando, Florida, and a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals, he authored the book "A New Kind of Conservative."

Welcome to you both.

REVEREND JOEL HUNTER, National Association of Evangelicals: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Bishop Jackson, how much do these endorsements matter?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR., High Impact Leadership Coalition: I think they matter a great deal, because one of the questions for our conservative community is, who do we trust? And it doesn't seem that anyone embodies all the values that we want to put forth. And I think it matters a lot because folks of great stature are throwing their weight behind certain candidates.

Another question is going to be, do I think those endorsements are appropriate or not? But I think that you're going to find that the religious right will probably make a major impact on the final outcome of the general election.

GWEN IFILL: Even if someone like Pat Robertson is willing to endorse someone on such fundamental issues that they disagree on, with -- well, you know what I'm saying.

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: I do. I think he's probably dealing with an issue in his own mind of leadership and electability. I think the movement, however, is still at the place where it feels that life and the value of life is very significant.

In fact, I'm sitting here because there's a new enlargement of the base of the religious right and that is the black-led church and the white-led church are starting to come together in a dynamic that is unprecedented. And I think that's very, very significant.

So the life issue, abortion or not, we're against abortion, that kind of thing, traditional marriage or not, black families are going through major problems, those things are not going to go away as major priorities, but guys like Robertson who may be asking himself questions about, who really is electable in this time?

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Hunter, let me bring you into this. What do you think about this notion of the power of endorsements and whether they're a signal that the movement itself is changing?

REVEREND JOEL HUNTER: Well, I would agree with my friend, Harry Jackson, in saying that they're very significant symbolically. I think the movement is changing; it's broadening.

There are a couple of questions right now, and one is, do you not prioritize your traditional values in order to have a better chance of being on the winning side? That kind of smacks of moral compromise for some of the folks in the movement.

Focus on marriages, families

Reverend Joel Hunter
Author, "A New Kind of Conservative"
As pastors, we don't nearly worry as much about terrorists attacking our congregations as we do their marriages falling apart, them working hard and still not being able to provide their children with health insurance.

GWEN IFILL: Which traditional values -- pardon me -- which traditional values are you talking to or alluding to?

REVEREND JOEL HUNTER: Well, I'm talking about abortion. I'm talking about family values, the traditional marriage, and so on and so forth, that Giuliani is not as strong on as he is on national defense.

And I know that Robertson has always been prioritizing national defense. When he ran in 1988, I remember the Cuban missile accusations that there were Soviet missiles in Cuba. So I know he has a very high priority for national defense.

But I'll tell you, as pastors, we don't nearly worry as much about terrorists attacking our congregations as we do their marriages falling apart, them working hard and still not being able to provide their children with health insurance, the kind of environment they're going to have to face when they grow up. Those kinds of questions are very important to more and more Christian conservatives.

GWEN IFILL: Bishop Jackson, as he defines the major issues, do you agree with him or do you think that, in the end, decisions are still going to be made by the bulk of social conservatives on this issue of abortion and marriage, rather than on issues about terrorism, and health insurance, and other policy issues?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: Yes, I think it remains the same. Abortion and marriage are going to remain the kind of centerpiece of the movement. And what he is talking about is local politics, in my view, and the church versus national politics.

But I think you're going to find this group of people is really not changed, hasn't changed very much over the last several years, that they're concerned about certain basic issues, like life, so it's going to remain the same.

Our leaders, though, are changing. And I think this is what Joel may be kind of getting to, and that is, how much influence does Pat Robertson have currently? And I was at their convocation a few weeks ago, spoke for them as they were opening up their school year, and highly respect him as an individual...

GWEN IFILL: At Regent University.

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: At Regent University. He was there on the campus. I often appear on their "NewsWatch" program. And so I respect what they're doing, but I believe that this is going to shake a lot of people. They're going to say, "Wow, he's kind of off-track on this one," because they're going to focus in on those primary values, as we talked about.

Weighing the candidates

Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr.
High Impact Leadership Coalition
I don't hear anybody having the values that we endorse and having the strength of leadership, where they're saying, in a terrible time, move in a certain direction.

GWEN IFILL: Are you satisfied with the field as it is now, the Republican field?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: I'm personally not. I am undecided. I think it's a little bit flawed in that I don't hear anybody having the values that we endorse and having the strength of leadership, where they're saying, in a terrible time, move in a certain direction. And that's probably the place that Robertson is caught.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask the same question to Reverend Hunter. Are you satisfied with the field?

REVEREND JOEL HUNTER: Absolutely not. I agree with Harry. There's been no coalescence so far. It's kind of like, you know, "Bring me the popcorn, because it's just getting interesting." There will be more and more people who try for endorsements with more and more people, visual leaders, but deliverable constituencies are scarce.

And so the strength of a Giuliani is that he is a nationally-recognized name, and so there's kind of a default advantage there, but nobody that I know of in the Christian conservative field is very satisfied with the choices that we have so far.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Reverend Hunter, what happened with the old conservative movement, where we saw Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, saying this is where the social conservatives are going to go, this is where they're going to vote -- and 90 percent of them did for President Bush in 2004 -- and now everyone is kind of not so sure?

REVEREND JOEL HUNTER: Two things happened, really. You have a new generation of Christian evangelical activists coming up, and they just don't follow the old leaders.

Second, there are people in the Democratic Party now who are addressing the faith and values question. And that is attractive to Christians, especially, again, those of the younger generation, who say, "Well, that sounds pretty good to me. That sounds like they're really addressing some of the things that are my concerns, also."

And so you don't have the kind of broad split and a broad, you know, kind of the two-party or two-person conflict this time that you had last time.

Possibility of a third party

Reverend Joel Hunter
Author, "A New Kind of Conservative"
The question isn't, has it [conservative power] peaked? The question is, is it still as narrow? And the answer is no. It's much broader now. And it will be much more activist on many more fronts.

GWEN IFILL: Bishop Jackson, there are some in your movement -- James Dobson, a very big figure in it, who has said, "Forget all of them. We're going to go with a third party," especially if they nominate somebody like Giuliani. Is that something you endorse or believe has legs?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: Well, I'm concerned about that in the near term. Long term, it may be very viable. Because what we're facing now is that the Republican Party has treated the white evangelicals like the Democrats have treated black evangelicals over the years.

GWEN IFILL: Taken them for granted?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: Yes, you show up the Sunday before the Tuesday, and then you throw us under the bus after it's all said and done. You really don't address our major issues.

That's a primary problem. If Giuliani, without repentance, without any change, winds up being the candidate of the Republican Party, I think there's going to be a lot of folks looking for some place else to be.

GWEN IFILL: What about McCain? What about Romney? What about Huckabee?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: I think all of these folks have some merit. I like Huckabee in terms of his social conservative stances. I think he's got a lot of things to say.

GWEN IFILL: Former Baptist minister.

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, JR.: Baptist minister, that resonates with me. So right now, though, it doesn't seem, as Joel said, that anyone has kind of an anchor there within our community. And I believe that it has to do with how they're articulating the timeless truths that have unified us. We've unified around values and around the issue of family.

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Hunter, as so many conservatives are kind of not so certain this time, is it possible that the power of the religious right, which people, you know, feared throughout the '80s and '90s, has that power peaked?

REVEREND JOEL HUNTER: No, I don't think it's even begun to peak yet. I think, as I see more and more folks coming into the movement, that we will have a lot of say about what goes on in the future.

The question isn't, has it peaked? The question is, is it still as narrow? And the answer is no. It's much broader now. And it will be much more activist on many more fronts.

And so just the very simplistic, monolithic movement is gone in the future. And what you will see is a much more mature and much more sophisticated movement. And the politicians are really going to have to work hard for our support.

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Joel Hunter and Bishop Harry Jackson, thank you both very much.