A team of conservative Christian Republicans has spent the last six months quietly interviewing all of the Republican presidential candidates, except Sen. John McCain and Elizabeth Dole, who declined because of scheduling conflicts. The purpose of the interviews was to determine the candidates' degree of acceptability to this important constituency. Operating under the umbrella of a group called The Madison Project, which is headed by Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, the group concluded its interviews this month in Washington with the leading contender for the GOP nomination, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Some social conservatives have expressed concern that Mr. Bush might be "squishy" on such issues as abortion, school choice, and other subjects dear to their hearts. Mr. Farris told me, "I think Bush is acceptable. I'll support him if he's the nominee." It is enough for Mr. Farris and the 14 other members of the group that Gov. Bush says he would appoint federal judges who are "strict constructionists." They reason that if such a phrase was good enough for their hero Ronald Reagan, it's good enough when Gov. Bush uses it. They don't need to hear the phrase "litmus test." Still, Mr. Farris said the group also would support Steve Forbes, should he win the nomination, a position apparently intended to keep Mr. Bush from courting the liberal wing. The other Republican candidates, including Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes, were dismissed as "fooling themselves" by pursuing the presidency. Among those on the interview panel were former Republican Sen. William Armstrong of Colorado, Texas Judge Paul Pressler, Tim LaHaye, a best-selling author and one of the founders of the modern religious conservative movement, Presbyterian minister D. James Kennedy of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and Paul Weyrich, who earlier this year called on social conservatives to give up on electoral politics and establish "parallel institutions" to train a new generation of young people with conservative beliefs and values. Mr. Armstrong said Gov. Bush "favorably impressed him." Gov. Bush is "a man of conviction" and "he doesn't need to go further" in his pro-life statements. Mr. Armstrong believes Gov. Bush's religious faith is genuine. On the issue of gay rights, Mr. Armstrong asked the governor whether he thought it was OK for an ambassador and department heads to be openly homosexual. Gov. Bush told the group he would not "knowingly" appoint a practicing homosexual as an ambassador or department head, but neither would he dismiss anyone who was discovered to be a homosexual after being named to a position. The impression Mr. Armstrong received was that as long as someone kept his or her sexual preferences private and did not promote them to influence policy, Gov. Bush could live with such an arrangement. "I wish he had nailed that down a little more," said Mr. Armstrong. On the Department of Education, which some conservatives have tried but failed to eliminate since Reagan's administration, Mr. Armstrong said that Gov. Bush was not prepared to make such a promise, but that he will "decentralize the money," allowing more state and local control of public schools. Judge Pressler told me that "social conservatives have nothing to fear from a George W. Bush presidency." Mr. Farris said Gov. Bush promised him that, as president, he would make sure government leaves the growing homeschool movement alone and would protect it from encroaching federal agencies. Social conservatives want to win the next election, so they are willing to abandon the candidates who might more clearly articulate their beliefs but can't attract the vast middle necessary to any political victory. Increasingly they are lining up behind the Texas governor, while keeping Steve Forbes as a "reserve quarterback" in case Gov. Bush is injured. I've called this strategy "principled pragmatism," and it's the only approach that can win. The series of candidate interviews, which remarkably did not leak, seems to have settled the question of George W. Bush's social-issue bona fides. Gov. Bush's perceived convictions, coupled with a non-threatening demeanor, will make it harder for the Democratic nominee to marginalize Gov. Bush as an "extremist" and a lackey of the so-called Religious Right. But that won't keep him from trying.
-© 1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate