Religious conservative leaders say they don’t expect to win if they carry through with preparations to run their own presidential candidate next year.
Instead, their goal would be to hurt the Republicans if Rudolph W. Giuliani becomes the Republican Party’s standard-bearer.
“The only reason to go third party is to hurt another party, as Ross Perot did and Ralph Nader did,” American Family Association (AFA) Chairman Donald Wildmon told The Washington Times.
Mr. Perot’s populist presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996 were seen as mostly hurting the Republicans, while Mr. Nader’s 2000 Green Party candidacy was widely blamed for helping defeat Democrat Al Gore.
“Third parties are extremely difficult,” said Mr. Wildmon, a United Methodist minister whose AFA owns 180 radio stations in 28 states and reaches 3.4 million subscribers with “action alert” e-mails. “The two major parties have done pretty well in protecting themselves against competition.”
“It’s way too early to be talking about a third party,” said Free Congress Foundation President Paul M. Weyrich, a Catholic. “But if Giuliani gets the nomination, the Republican Party will be useless to Christian conservatives. So at that point, we would have to make some kind of determination of what do we do.”
Mr. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, is the only explicitly pro-choice Republican chasing the nomination. He opposes a constitutional ban on same-sex “marriage” and has expressed approval of civil unions for same-sex couples.
Mr. Wildmon says the abortion and marriage issues are “not negotiable,” but like many other social conservative leaders, he is of two minds about running a third-party candidate. “I don’t know — it all depends on what the Republican Party does,” he told The Times.
“If Giuliani gets the nomination, it can be said that the Republicans self-destructed,” said Mr. Wildmon. “They will have done it to themselves. It will not be those of us who are social conservatives who did it.”
Unable to agree on any of the other four Republican nomination hopefuls who score in the double digits in polls, religious conservative leaders are limited in what they can do to derail Mr. Giuliani.
Nor is it clear whether a third-party candidate fielded by Catholic and evangelical leaders would deny the Republican ticket a victory — or have an major effect, except in an extremely close contest. There is no way of knowing beforehand whether rank-and-file voters on the Christian right will follow their leaders.
“The bigger problem facing the GOP is apathy about the current slate, not a challenge from a third party,” said Merrill Matthews, an evangelical and resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas.
Some social conservatives who oppose a third party have privately said they will swallow hard and vote for Mr. Giuliani if he faces Mrs. Clinton in the general election.
While some evangelical leaders back former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, few support former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — whose Mormonism is suspect among many Christian conservatives — or Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who attacked Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in the 2000 campaign.
Fifth-ranked in the polls, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has backing of the leaders of many small-to-medium sized evangelical congregations and interest groups but not the most widely influential leaders like Mr. Wildmon and Mr. Dobson.
“It would seem that Christian leaders could well rally around Mike Huckabee if they are in search of a candidate they like,” said Republican election-law attorney Cleta Mitchell. “It isn’t as though there isn’t any candidate they could support.”
Mrs. Mitchell supports no candidate but thinks Mr. Huckabee “is actually a pretty impressive candidate and is doing a credible job of making his presence felt in this race.”
Mr. Wildmon agreed. “Could the social-conservative leaders support Huckabee? Yes. Have they done so yet? No,” he said, adding that he is “part of a group who have pledged not to go public to endorse anybody until the end of October.”
If current alignments haven’t changed by then, however, public declarations of fealty will reveal a badly splintered Christian right. A year before the presidential election, the depth of the religious right’s disappointment with Republicans, including with President Bush, is beyond what leaders have acknowledged up till now.
“Every six months before an election, Republicans are our best friends, and six days after the election, they don’t even know us,” said Mr. Wildmon, who is considered one of the two most influential evangelicals in the country — along with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.
“Here’s one thing I’ll say about Republicans,” Mr. Wildmon said. “They may not win with us, but they cannot win without us. The leadership needs to think seriously and long about that proposition.”