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Republican ‘08 options disappoint evangelicals

- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2007

Evangelical Christians have long been a key constituency for the Republican Party, but leading religious conservatives are expressing dissatisfaction with the party's current crop of presidential candidates.

"What's different is that evangelicals had desirable candidates in 2000," said Marvin Olasky, who helped define the "compassionate conservative" message that was central to President Bush's 2000 campaign. "Now, many evangelicals are negative about the whole leader board."

Eight years ago, Christian conservative stalwarts Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes sought the Republican nomination in a presidential field led from start to finish by Mr. Bush, who proudly proclaimed his born-again faith.

Each of the three Republicans most often mentioned as front-runners for the 2008 presidential nomination -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- present significant problems to evangelical voters, said Mr. Olasky, a University of Texas professor and Christian journalist.

"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," he said.

Many Christian conservatives have not forgiven Mr. McCain for his open hostility toward them during his failed 2000 bid for the Republican presidential nomination. After losing that year's South Carolina primary, Mr. McCain denounced as "agents of intolerance" the Rev. Jerry Falwell and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, whom he compared to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and civil rights activist Al Sharpton.

"I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances," James Dobson, founder of Colorado-based Focus on the Family, has said.

Mr. Dobson condemns the Vietnam War hero for, among other things, sponsoring the 2002 campaign-finance legislation that "keeps us from telling the truth right before elections. ... He's not in favor of traditional marriage, and I pray that we won't get stuck with him."

Mr. McCain has attempted to mend fences -- he was last year's commencement speaker at Mr. Falwell's Liberty University and was praised by the Southern Baptist minister as "a great American" -- but so far has failed to meet fundraising expectations for his 2008 campaign.

Mr. Romney leads the Republican presidential pack in campaign cash, but polls show him stuck in single-digit percentages of support from Republican primary voters, despite his strong advocacy of conservative policies.

"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," said Free Congress Foundation President Paul M. Weyrich, a longtime leader in recruiting Catholics and Protestant evangelicals to the Republican fold. "But Mormons really do have decent families. In many ways, that ought to be looked at rather than a man's religion."

Mr. Giuliani maintains a big lead over his Republican rivals in the polls yet has all the wrong policy positions on social issues such as abortion and homosexual rights considered key to cultivating Christian conservatives. However, some evangelicals and pro-life Catholics seem willing to overlook his faults -- including his two divorces -- in the belief that he is the only Republican actually running who can defeat the Democratic nominee in 2008.

Still, Mr. Giuliani and conservative Christians "probably have irreconcilable differences on life and family and that kind of thing," said Mr. Falwell, adding, "I couldn't support him for president."

Nor is Mr. Dobson in Mr. Giuliani's cheering section.

"I do not believe that the current excitement over Giuliani will continue," Mr. Dobson told U.S. News & World Report.

Richard Land, president of the Religious and Ethics Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, takes a hard line against virtually all the major Republican candidates. He says he'd vote for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, over Mr. Giuliani if the 2008 presidential race came down to such a choice. And if Mr. Giuliani wins, "he'll do so without social conservatives," Mr. Land said.

Mr. Land says the religious conservative leaders he knows don't trust Mr. McCain either.

"Do we have any reason to believe that his being pro-life would have anything to do with who he would nominate to the Supreme Court?" Mr. Land told CNN's Paula Zahn. "It's that kind of uncomfortability with his unpredictability -- the maverick nature that makes him so popular with independents -- that gives conservatives pause."

TV actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are two big names who have tantalized conservative Republicans by hinting at potential 2008 bids for the White House. Yet each has critics among evangelical leaders.