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."
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.
But Huckabee could not gain traction among the religious right leaders who could have generated the financial backing he needed to run a national campaign. In October, as well, he met with a group of conservative Christian leaders-most drawn from the ranks of the CNP gatherings-who say they were "vetting" the candidates. Most didn't like Huckabee's positions on immigration and tax reform. Others thought him insufficiently ardent in criticizing Islamic extremism and abortion. Members of the group believed that Huckabee was "their guy" from a religious perspective but said he was not quite ready for "prime time."
But no other candidates thrilled the leaders, either, so Huckabee was the one candidate they invited back for what one leader called a "do-over." He did much better the second time, yet the group remained too divided about his winning potential to agree to endorse him. When he won a stunning victory in Iowa, he didn't have the resources to take advantage of that upset in the primaries that immediately followed. McCain beat Romney in New Hampshire, and the Arizona senator soon became the unexpected front-runner.
On Jan. 22, just days after the South Carolina primary, Fred Thompson dropped out of the race. The next day, American Values president Gary Bauer wrote the 100,000 supporters on his email list: "Fred Thompson-sadly, in my view-dropped out of the Republican presidential primary race yesterday. He was the one candidate who understood Reagan conservatism and who appealed to all three segments of the Reagan coalition-social conservatives, economic conservatives and defense conservatives."
Thompson's departure should have helped Huckabee, but Huckabee himself had finished a disappointing second in South Carolina-to McCain. When Giuliani failed to win Florida on Jan. 29, a state in which he had spent much of his time and money, he withdrew-and McCain got most of Giuliani's supporters.
On Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008, McCain won nine states to Romney's seven and Huckabee's five. McCain took 601 of the delegates to Romney's 201 and Huckabee's 152. When it was too late for Huckabee, Dobson endorsed him, but by then McCain had the endorsement of inevitability. On March 4, nearly a year after Dobson had said he would not vote for McCain, McCain won the Texas primary and enough delegates to clinch the GOP nomination.
Three days later the CNP met again, this time in New Orleans. McCain, trying to stroke conservatives, took the stage with a hand-held microphone. He received applause when he praised Huckabee, when he said, "We've let spending get out of control," when he said, "Radical Islamic extremism is evil. It's evil," and when he said, "As for the rights of the unborn: The noblest words written are the words 'inalienable rights.' That means the right to life."
When asked about his own faith in God, though, McCain launched into the story he has told often about a prison guard in North Vietnam who showed him compassion and once, in the prison yard, drew the sign of the cross in the dirt at McCain's feet, then quickly brushed it away. The story received polite applause. Later Family Research Council head Tony Perkins told WORLD, "He had a golden opportunity to talk about his faith. Instead, he talked about the faith of his guard. It was a great story, but not what we were looking for." Bill Owens, founder and president of the Coalition of African-American Pastors, was more direct: "It was a disaster. It just proves he has no clue what we're about."
But Phil Burress, who by championing a marriage amendment in Ohio in 2004 became instrumental in winning Ohio-and reelection-for George W. Bush, was among the last to speak before the New Orleans meeting broke up. Burress had been a part of the "vetting process" in Washington where the leaders reviewed and dismissed the GOP candidates early on.
With the election now just over six months away, he told the New Orleans gathering, "McCain wasn't my first choice, and I'm not sure about him now, but we've got a zero chance of getting a conservative Supreme Court justice out of either Clinton or Obama. I don't know whether we've got a 25 percent chance, or a 50 percent chance, or a 100 percent chance with McCain-but it's better than zero, and I'm going to do everything in my power to help get him elected. He's our best shot."