Features

Divided we stand

Politics | Unable to unite behind a GOP candidate, religious right leaders face a wilderness road to the White House

Issue: "Shattered dreams," April 5, 2008

NEW ORLEANS- Last month at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New Orleans, several dozen leaders of the "Christian right" met to strategize next steps-but the meeting inevitably included discussion of missteps in the GOP presidential campaign. Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association, an early supporter of Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, chided the group for cold-shouldering his candidate until it was too late. Others, including Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, disagreed. The meeting quickly threatened to dissolve into accusations, rebuttals, and recriminations.

Then, venerable Paul Weyrich-a founder of the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the Council for National Policy (CNP)-raised his hand to speak. Weyrich is a man whose mortality is plain to see. A freak accident several years ago left him with a spinal injury, which ultimately led to both his legs being amputated in 2005. He now gets around in a motorized wheelchair. He is visibly paler and grayer than he was just a few years ago, a fact not lost on many of his friends in the room, some of whom had fought in the political trenches with him since the 1960s.

The room-which had been taken over by argument and side-conversations-became suddenly quiet. Weyrich, a Romney supporter and one of those Farris had chastised for not supporting Huckabee, steered his wheelchair to the front of the room and slowly turned to face his compatriots. In a voice barely above a whisper, he said, "Friends, before all of you and before almighty God, I want to say I was wrong."

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In a quiet, brief, but passionate speech, Weyrich essentially confessed that he and the other leaders should have backed Huckabee, a candidate who shared their values more fully than any other candidate in a generation. He agreed with Farris that many conservative leaders had blown it. By chasing other candidates with greater visibility, they failed to see what many of their supporters in the trenches saw clearly: Huckabee was their guy.

Why were the leaders of Christian conservatives divided and ultimately ineffective in the 2008 campaign?

The story may have begun a year ago when Newt Gingrich appeared on Focus on the Family's national radio broadcast on March 16, 2007. During the broadcast, Gingrich confessed past sins and Focus founder and host James Dobson declared, "I cannot under any circumstances support John McCain." Many thought that Gingrich would be Dobson's candidate, but those who had been disappointed by Gingrich's ineffectiveness as speaker of the House, or by his extramarital dalliance, withheld their backing.

That same day Sen. John McCain pulled in a disappointing $150,000 at a luncheon fundraiser across the country at the Westin Hotel in Charlotte. He was polling in single digits, behind Gov. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, even behind former Sen. Fred Thompson, who had not declared his candidacy. At an after-lunch press conference, McCain took a reporter's question about Gingrich's performance on the Focus broadcast with an icy stare: "First of all, let me say that I'm a believer in redemption."

For McCain, political redemption was a year away. Gingrich failed to rally support from those who knew him best, and some conservative leaders turned instead to Romney, who had long courted them. In 2006, Christian public-relations guru and Romney backer Mark DeMoss had his candidate meet with about 15 conservative activists. In a gesture that-like much of Romney's campaign-was both opulent and desperate, Romney sent everyone in attendance an expensive office chair, along with a note that read, "You'll always have a seat at our table."

Despite the largesse, Romney gained only a footstool at the Christian conservative table, whose leadership increasingly was troubled over his flip-flops on gay civil unions and abortion. On Sept. 29, 2007, he spoke at a CNP meeting in Salt Lake City. The next day he met with Dobson, Perkins, and about 40 other leaders. Conservative talk show host Rick Scarborough told WORLD the verdict: Romney as governor of Massachusetts "just a few short years ago . . . fought against everything we're fighting for." He would not win the group's backing.

So, with Gingrich not in the running, and Romney a "no," Thompson's leisurely campaign and Ron Paul's iconoclastic one did not impress many Republicans. Giuliani's pro-abortion stance alienated most. The candidate who continued to draw support from grassroots folks: Huckabee.

"The other candidates come to you," Huckabee told 2,000 Christian conservatives at the Washington, D.C., Value Voters Summit in October 2007. "I come from you."

That line generated one of more than a dozen standing ovations during Huckabee's 20-minute address, and he gained most of their votes in a straw poll of those present.

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