GOP Candidates Court Christian Right

With GOP presidential contenders in agreement on most economic issues, the contest for who is most socially conservative has begun

CALL it the fight for the Christian right.

As they scramble for position in the early stages of the presidential nomination race, GOP White House hopefuls are redoubling efforts to appeal to religious and social conservatives.

This core GOP constituency will play a large role in the choice of its party's candidate -- and it remains uncommitted and restless over the lineup so far. Thus the issues religious conservatives care passionately about, such as abortion, school prayer, and moral values in general, are suddenly moving front and center in the GOP debate.

''I think the first thing to realize is that there really isn't a candidate of the Christian right'' this year, says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio. ''The candidates that would have most obvious appeal to them, [former Rep. Jack] Kemp, [former Vice President Dan] Quayle, and [former Education Secretary William] Bennett have decided not to run.'' And since religious conservatives constitute 25 to 40 percent of the Republican primary vote, he says ''if they stay united, they can effect a veto. A candidate has to not be offensive to the Christian right.''

''Because [religious conservatives] are not single-issue voters, candidatess don't have to have extreme positions on abortion and gay rights,'' Dr. Green says. ''But if candidates can convince these voters that they will pursue conservative positions on these and other issues, that will really help them.''

So most candidates are trying to signal that they are at least sympathetic to religious conservatives' concerns.

Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, for example, after moving right on the economy by promising not to raise taxes, says he is anti-abortion, supports voluntary prayer in schools, and has attacked Hollywood for promoting ''casual violence and even more casual sex.''

But his different roles of majority leader and candidate can conflict, as his handling of Henry Foster's nomination for surgeon general -- which religious conservatives strongly oppose -- shows. He first threatened not to bring the nomination to a floor vote, but now, under pressure from other senators, says he will decide after talking to Foster. Sen. Phil Gramm, for his part, has threatened to filibuster the Foster nomination.

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander both say they oppose abortion and are concerned about disintegration of the family and other institutions.

Gramm, flush with funds and early national exposure, staked the first claim to the conservative mantle. ''I was conservative before conservative was cool,'' is a favorite line. But in recent weeks other candidates have attacked him as unwilling to address social issues.

''Phil Gramm won't speak out on the social issues,'' Rep. Robert Dornan of California says. ''I truly believe Phil Gramm has fallen back into the pack.... It's Dole in the high 40s or low 50s, and all the rest of us packed in the single digits.''

Dueling polls

Commentator Pat Buchanan's campaign has kept up a steady fire as well, trying to position him to the right of everyone and claiming to have moved into second place in the race. He accuses both Gramm and Dole of ''turn[ing] their backs and walk[ing] away from the most important moral issue in America today, the pro-life cause.''

The Buchanan campaign made hay of a late-April New York Post/Zogby Group poll showing him in second place with 14 percent support among Republican voters nationwide.

Dole led the poll with a hefty 51 percent, Senator Gramm received 5 percent, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and California Gov. Pete Wilson got 4 percent, Mr. Alexander 3 percent, Congressman Dornan 2 percent, and Senator Lugar 1 percent. The poll's margin of error was 3 percent.

But public-opinion polls at this early date in the race can be both volatile and contradictory. A recent poll by Fabrizio, McGlaughlin, and Associates showed Gramm in second place with 10 percent of Republican voters surveyed, with Buchanan receiving 6 percent. Dole got 44 percent in the survey, which had a 4.9 percent margin of error.

The Gramm campaign says assertions he is not in second place are ''nonsense.'' ''I don't think there is a serious independent political observer in America who agrees with that theory,'' says spokesman Gary Koops. ''Our campaign is right on target ... where we hoped to be the first week of May.''

Gramm has responded to the critics through two speeches on social issues this week. Last Sunday, he spoke at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. ''Is our crisis an economic crisis or a moral crisis? In my opinion it is both,'' he said.

He said he supports voluntary school prayer and would overturn the Clinton policy on homosexuals in the military. He would end taxpayer funding for abortions and help states defend abortion restrictions in the courts. He touched on similar themes at a talk to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, on Tuesday.

''I think Gramm did a pretty good job of trying to tie economic conservatism with the moral, social issues that the Christian right cares about,'' Green says.

Buchanan brushed aside Gramm's remarks. ''It's clear from his campaign so far he's very uncomfortable with social, moral, and cultural issues,'' he told Reuters.

While Gramm has in the past co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, ''he has realistically talked about the fact that he does not believe there are the votes now to pass a constitutional amendment, but that there are lots of other things we can build a majority on to protect the unborn,'' Mr. Koops says.

Dornan's approach is simple: He says that as a member of ''the pack'' he can break out because whatever the other candidates have done, he has done better. ''I am the 'best of the rest,' '' he says. ''I have all their salient points and longer service on those salient points.''

Specter's lone pitch

Meanwhile, the battle to see who's more conservative than whom has so far left much of the moderate field to Senator Specter, the only supporter of abortion rights currently in the campaign. Specter calls himself a ''fiscal conservative and a social libertarian.''

Critical of Buchanan and others, Specter says a debate on social issues will bog down the Senate as it takes up the fiscal and economic reforms in the GOP Contract With America. ''I have tried to take the abortion issue out of the campaign,'' he said to applause in Nashua, N.H. last Sunday. ''If we take abortion out of the political realm and concentrate on our core values as Republicans ... we can elect a Republican president in 1996.''

But Green and other observers say Specter is exactly the kind of candidate religious conservatives can't abide. They've let it be known, he says, that ''if you give us someone who is agressively and adamantly pro-choice, we're gonna get angry.''

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