Religious conservatives are at odds over which of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination should get their backing.
Many of the top leaders on the religious right privately say it’s impossible to name a top-tier, declared Republican hopeful who can pass the “straight face” test as someone social conservatives can honestly say they would trust if elected.
Catholics and Protestant evangelicals on the right account for about a third of the Republican Party’s electoral coalition, and it’s difficult for a Republican to win without them.
“The problem is that there isn’t someone seen as a titular head of the evangelicals who provides guidance on what and who they should be supporting,” said Merrill Matthews, an evangelical and resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas.
Most leaders of major social conservative organizations don’t like to talk outside their own circles about the movement’s splintering. Few are eager to be quoted about internecine antagonisms developing, in part because they fear it will undermine the movement’s political clout and the eventual Republican nominee’s chances of winning the Oval Office.
But religious-right leaders consider national political leadership a moral trust, and after several secret summits, these leaders are deeply, sometimes acrimoniously, at odds.
Focus on the Family President James Dobson twice said publicly that former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson is not a Christian.
American Values founder Gary Bauer told The Washington Times that Mr. Dobson, once Mr. Bauer’s mentor, “hurt the whole conservative Christian movement” by so labeling Mr. Thompson. “Come on, Dobson can’t even come up with a biblical basis for saying something like that.”
Mr. Bauer also called such action unwise, saying it makes likelier social conservatives’ worst fears — a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency or the GOP nomination going to former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is pro-choice on abortion.
“I understand the frustration we all feel, but for me the two nightmares are a Giuliani-versus-Hillary race, and Hillary taking the oath of office,” said Mr. Bauer, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. “We should be very careful not to slice up candidates we may turn to and ask our voter to get behind.”
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said there are disagreements but not schisms, and that “the majority of social conservatives will be together as long as there is a pro-life, pro-family candidate on the ballot.” Mr. Giuliani is the only Republican hopeful who is not pro-life.
But the gap between the front-runners and social conservatives widened at a Sept. 17 “values summit” in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attended by almost 1,000 leaders of traditional family organizations across the country. Mr. Thompson, Arizona Sen. John McCain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Mr. Giuliani “dissed” the event by turning down speaking invitations.
When the four top Republican presidential nomination seekers — all score in the double digits in polls of Republican primary voters — backed away, some of the big-name social conservative leaders also pulled out. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister who runs fifth in most polls, was the only nationally known, declared nomination candidate to show up.
Dr. Randy Brinson, a physician in Montgomery, Ala., who heads the evanglical group Redeem the Vote, supports Mr. Huckabee but said “rich” national conservative groups tend to prefer the glitzier hopefuls, who in their view stand a better chance of defeating New York’s Sen. Clinton, regarded as the presumptive Democratic nominee.
The national groups “do great work but don’t get people geared up,” said Dr. Brinson. He said Washington-headquartered, economic issues organizations like the Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform, headed by Grover Norquist, have “symbiotic relationships with the major social conservative groups and they don’t want to cross each other.”
Mr. Norquist criticized Mr. Huckabee for once having pushed a tax increase through the Arkansas legislature.
Mr. Matthews, of the Institute for Policy Innovation, said “most Washington conservatives — including members of Congress — tend to look to Grover for leadership when a controversial tax issue comes up. … There really isn’t such a person among evangelicals right now.”