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Cultural Conservatives Give Top GOP Candidates Tepid Reviews

Some conservative leaders say the lack of consensus should not be overstated given how far the first primaries are at this point.

“This may not be all that different than 2000,” said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. “If you were to see the framework before the primaries in 2000, social and cultural conservatives were not all lined up behind one candidate, and I think that’s the same now.”

But many others express more worry over the current crop of candidates. None of the Republican front-runners — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — have clear conservative records.

“What’s different is that evangelicals had desirable candidates in 2000,” conservative columnist Marvin Olasky told the Washington Times. “Now, many evangelicals are negative about the whole leader board.”

McCain has a lifetime rating of 82.3 — lower than most other Republicans — from the American Conservative Union, a lobbying organization that ranks legislators on a 100 point scale according to their voting records. And evangelicals are still smarting over his characterization of Christian conservative leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance” during the 2000 presidential primary. McCain tried to mend fences recently with an appearance at Falwell’s Liberty University, but some evangelical leaders remain skeptical.

“Speaking as a private individual, I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances,” Focus on the Family founder James Dobson told the Christian radio show Jerry Johnson Live in January.

Giuliani may be the least appealing choice for social conservatives, with his complicated personal life that includes three marriages and his liberal record on hot-button issues such as abortion rights to gun control. Dobson also said he could not support Giuliani because of Giuliani’s stance accepting abortion rights despite the fact that he said he personally “hates” abortion.

“I will either cast my ballot for an also-ran — or if worse comes to worst — not vote in a presidential election for the first time in my adult life,” Dobson said in a column on the conservative Web site WorldNetDaily.

Romney, meanwhile, doesn’t fare much better among Christian right leaders, mainly because of his one-time support for abortion rights — a position he has since renounced–and his Mormon faith.

“I hate to say this, and I wish our people were bigger than this, but they do believe the Mormon church is … not a church,” Free Congress Foundation President Paul Weyrich told the Washington Times.

This puts all of the top-tier candidates at the moment out of favor with conservative leaders.

“The question is what will be less distasteful to many evangelicals: Mitt Romney’s one-wife Mormonism, Rudy Giuliani’s marital mayhem or John McCain’s recent disdain,” Olasky told the Washington Times.

At the same time, the more purely conservative candidates such former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo continue to trail the top tier of candidates. And evangelical leaders recognize these second-tier candidates’ lack of political and fundraising clout.

“In the real world, you’ve got to have an organization and some money. Most of those candidates after the first tier lack both, and they’ve been in the race long enough to have them,” the Rev. Don Wildmon, who runs the Mississippi-based American Family Association, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The lack of strong GOP candidates who appeal to the Christian right may indicate a larger split between the party and part of its base. For years, a conservative stance on issues such as abortion has been a litmus test for potential GOP nominees but that may change this nomination cycle.

“Historically, the Republican Party has nominated candidates who are pro-life. So for a candidate to think that he will get the nomination for the GOP without being pro-life goes against recent history,” said Focus on the Family spokeswoman Carrie Gordon Earll.

Some Republican Party leaders are wondering whether it’s worth giving up a potentially winning candidate such as Giuliani in order to appease the party’s religious conservatives, Southern Methodist University political scientist Matthew Wilson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

At the same time, some evangelicals are growing frustrated with the party. “I think evangelicals are beginning to look at the Republican Party in the same way many blacks look at the Democratic Party, ‘Yes, it’s the best thing going, but they sure do take us for granted. They want us to just show up on Election Day and shut up the rest of the time,'” Wilson said.

He predicted that if the Republicans nominate Giuliani, the 30-year alliance between Republicans and the Christian right could be over.

Statements from some conservative leaders back up that prediction. Richard Land, president of the Religious and Ethics Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist convention, told the Washington Times that he would vote for Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York over Giuliani in a presidential race.

But despite their leaders’ dislike of the top-tier candidates, an April poll by the Pew Research Center found Giuliani and McCain in the lead among evangelical Republicans. If the election were held today, Giuliani would capture 27 percent of those voters, and McCain would get 23 percent, the poll showed.

The explanation for this disconnect, according to Pew senior fellow John Green, is that many rank-and-file evangelicals are not particularly political, and are not yet paying much attention to the presidential primaries.

“You have to draw a distinction between political activists and leaders, and everyone else,” Green said. “Evangelicals are a large group that tends to be conservative on social issues and tends to vote Republican, but are not particularly attuned to inside baseball politics. On the other hand, the James Dobsons, the leaders of the Christian right, this is their bread and butter — to try to influence politics.”

Most evangelicals, like most other Americans, likely would profess support for the candidates who have garnered the most media attention, Green said.

Green also pointed out that the poll showed 23 percent of evangelicals were still undecided about which candidate to support. That indecision may reflect the group’s general unhappiness with the field.

If evangelical and other Christian right leaders do mobilize behind a candidate, perhaps one not yet in the race, such as former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and begin to get the word out to their constituents, the survey results could change dramatically, according to Green.

“I think the bottom line is that there’s a lot of foment within the evangelical community,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see what the choices are.”

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