It is tough time for religious conservatives.
"We are struggling about what to do in a very difficult election cycle," said Gary Bauer, president of American Values, at a Monitor breakfast Wednesday. The nonprofit group describes itself as "defending life and traditional marriage" as well as standing against "liberal education and cultural forces."
Affiliated for 30 years with a Republican Party that has defined itself as pro-life and pro-family, religious conservatives are viewing the current GOP presidential race with alarm. A key reason: The candidate sitting atop the national polls is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who supports a woman's right to choose an abortion and who favors at least some rights for gay partners.
Whether Mr. Giuliani would be an acceptable Republican candidate is an issue which exposes fault lines among movement leaders.
"He gives social conservatives very little to be motivated about," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, which describes itself as championing "marriage and family as the foundation of civilization, the seedbed of virtue, and the wellspring of society."
Giuliani " has stated a pro-abortion-rights position. There is nothing more fundamental to social conservatives than the preservation of human life, the sanctity of human life. Right behind that is the issue of marriage. He is wrong on that issue as well," Mr. Perkins said at the breakfast.
He offers only a barely concealed warning to the Republican Party. "If they break faith with evangelical social conservatives on these issues, I believe a lot of social conservatives will break ranks with the GOP. I don't think it is enough to scare them with Hillary."
"Of all the candidates, Mayor Giuliani is the most problematic from the standpoint of values-motivated voters," Mr. Bauer said. "There is no question about that."
But Bauer raised the issue of an apparent divide among religious conservatives. "It is important for those of us in Washington who speak for the movement to not get too far ahead of our followers. And ... one of the reasons there is so much frustration is that social conservatives seem to be divided right now about what they are looking for."
Despite Giuliani's positions on social issues, "If you look at regular church attendees across the country, Giuliani has a clear plurality of those voters," Bauer said. He added, "Now there could be a number of reasons for that. One is they don't fully realize his position on the social issues. The other possibility, though, is that some of these voters have decided that defending Western civilization is a moral issue, too. "
Neither Perkins nor Bauer muster a great deal of enthusiasm for the candidacy of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, even though he has strong evangelical credentials. Mr. Huckabee attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, served as a Baptist pastor, and later was president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.
"While Governor Huckabee is very good on all the social issues, he has not seemed to find solid footing on the issue of the threat internationally from radical Islam," Perkins said.
"In a major foreign-policy address a couple of weeks ago that did not get much attention … in the middle of the speech [Huckabee] went after the Bush administration on not aggressively negotiating enough with Iran and suggested that the administration needs to offer economic incentives for Iran to change its policy," Bauer said. "That just struck me as a very naive approach."
With Huckabee ranking low in the polls, the key question confronting religious conservative leaders is how to react if Republicans nominate a candidate – Giuliani – who supports abortion rights.
Perkins divides the question into short- and long-term decisions. "Short term, everybody realizes that a third-party effort would not work in this presidential election. It may pull enough votes to keep a pro-abortion-rights Republican from winning. It is not going to succeed in electing a pro-life candidate."
The longer term issue is what religious conservatives will do if the Republican Party retreats from the social issues which had tied it to values voters. "Then I think the social conservatives within the ranks have to consider where is there long-term home. And I do believe long term it could give rise to a serious thought of a third party," Perkins said.
Recent public comments from leaders of the religious conservative movement about the possibility of forming a third party, were "an early Christmas gift for Hillary Clinton and not good overall for the work we have tried to do in a very imperfect Republican Party," Bauer said.
"I think our movement is at its best when we are talking to the American people about why we are pro-life," Bauer observed. "And I think we are at our least attractive when we sound like the AFL-CIO – either do it my way or I am taking my marbles and going home."
He argued that "a pro-choice Republican nominee would make it almost impossible to get out a large evangelical or values voter vote. But I think when you go to the next step and threaten a third party, that just makes it very hard to build the kind of coalitions that you have to build in American politics."