- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

RICHMOND (AP) — Sen. John McCain isn’t planning to attend the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s funeral Tuesday. Rival Republican presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani can’t make it, either.

Nor can former Virginia governor and long-shot 2008 Republican presidential candidate James S. Gilmore III.

Some Republican luminaries will attend next week’s funeral in Lynchburg for the founder of the Moral Majority, but it’s not a must-attend political event.

Often there are political repercussions for the politicians who attend, or don’t attend, the funeral of a major national political figure. An arbitrary no-show by a Republican officeholder at the funeral of, say, President Reagan three years ago might have risked the ire of the popular president’s adoring fans.

Even though Mr. Falwell is an early and abiding hero to the religious right, there are no political consequences for skipping his funeral, said Merle Black, political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

“This funeral will be very much more about the people who were influenced by him and his ministry,” Mr. Black said.

Veteran Republican strategist Christopher J. LaCivita, architect of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth initiative against Democrat John Kerry in 2004, found the notion that religious conservatives would punish no-shows offensive.

“To assume that Christian conservative voters would hold it against any candidate for public office because they did not attend a respected leader like Jerry Falwell’s funeral, that’s just another attempt to portray Christian values voters as shallow,” Mr. LaCivita said.

Even among Republicans without White House aims, there are commitments that can’t be broken. Sen. John W. Warner has critical votes on the Hill on Tuesday. Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell can’t attend.

Virginia’s lieutenant governor, William T. Bolling, and Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, both Republicans popular among Christian conservatives, will be there.

University of Virginia political science professor Larry J. Sabato said what’s more important to voters on the religious right is the candidates’ statements last Tuesday when they learned of his death and how they meshed with Mr. Falwell and other religious leaders.

“It’s helpful to be there, but it probably doesn’t hurt if they’re not,” Mr. Sabato said.

Exerting political influence was Mr. Falwell’s most visible national role. Back home in Lynchburg — a quiet Blue Ridge Mountain city with a population of 68,000 — his profile was much deeper, more varied and much more personal.

He was the founding pastor of the city’s largest and best-known church, Thomas Road Baptist Church. He also was the founder and president of Liberty University, a campus of about 9,600 students that is also among the region’s largest employers.

“I look at funerals like this as being for friends and family and for a leader who had an impact on people’s lives, whether it was through Thomas Road Church or Liberty,” said George Allen, a Republican former governor and U.S. senator who was a Falwell friend and beneficiary of his support.

Mr. Allen and his wife, Susan, will attend the funeral, he said, but he sees no reason it should be a political requisite.

“There are times when you have to miss funerals, even when you’re really, really personally close,” Mr. Allen said.

Mr. Gilmore said he tried to clear his schedule for Tuesday, but had commitments outside Virginia he could not miss for the sake of his campaign.

Mr. McCain, who as a presidential candidate in 2000 publicly criticized Mr. Falwell, made amends with him last May when he addressed Liberty’s spring commencement.

Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, handles that duty today at this year’s graduation ceremony.

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