Social conservative leaders take stock of GOP field

Tony Perkins, Mark Earley, and Gary Bauer gave their take on Giuliani's lead, the prospect of a Fred Thompson candidacy, and McCain's struggles.

As poll after poll shows former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani continuing to lead among Republicans running for their party's 2008 presidential nomination, the obvious question for social conservatives is this: Why?

Mr. Giuliani, after all, takes liberal positions on abortion, gun control, and gay rights. At a Monitor breakfast on Wednesday, reporters posed this question to three presidents of top social conservative groups: Gary Bauer of American Values, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and Mark Earley of the Prison Fellowship.

Answer No. 1: It's still early in the process, and most of the voting public (as opposed to journalists and political professionals) still has not tuned into the presidential campaign in a serious way.

Answer No. 2: Many conservatives are not single-issue voters and, in the post-9/11 world, are factoring in a greater complex of issues than just the social issues.

"There's a strong percentage of self-identified conservative Republican voters who do look at all the issues through a sort of a moral prism, and certainly the life issue is an issue that matters to them, but saving and defending Western civilization is seen as a moral issue, too," says Mr. Bauer.

"So a candidate like a Giuliani, who is perceived as being very strong in that area, is someone who is going to get a closer and a harder look and the possibility of support until people go through the whole balancing act of looking at all these things and deciding what at this particular time matters the most to them," Bauer adds.

Mr. Perkins agreed with that assessment but then fired a warning shot on the possibility of a Giuliani nomination. "I don't think the party can successfully nominate a pro-abortion candidate and win the White House," he said. "I think it's a ticket for Hillary Clinton to win the White House."

And why is Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona struggling in his second run for the presidency, despite his solid conservative voting record on social issues? It's all about a speech he delivered in 2000, in which he referred to two religious leaders – Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell – as "agents of intolerance."

Bauer says that comment was interpreted among social conservatives as an attack on them and their involvement in politics, not just on the two men named. "Obviously, he's more conservative on these social issues than Giuliani is, but there isn't anything comparable in Giuliani's rhetorical record where he went after Christian conservatives in a rhetorical way," Bauer says.

The excitement in the GOP over former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson's hint that he might still jump into the race demonstrates a yearning for stronger candidates that goes beyond the social conservative activist base of the party, the men said.

"I think people are looking for a candidate who can cast a broader vision for the country," said Perkins. "It's not Fred Thompson that's creating the excitement; it's the fact that somebody else may get into the race," he added. "There's this vacuum…."

So what are Americans looking for in their next president? "They're looking for somebody that resembles more clearly what they remember the Reagan era to be," Bauer says.

Mr. Earley believes the next president will need better communication skills. "Even those of us who love George Bush – that's just not one of his strengths," he says.

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