From The Hill
Evangelical leaders Gary Bauer and Tony Perkins said Wednesday it is still possible for social conservative Republican voters to find a candidate to rally behind, and painted another Clinton administration as the worst outcome of the 2008 election.
Speaking to reporters at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor in advance of next week’s Values Voter Summit, Bauer and Perkins backed away from earlier threats that Christian conservatives would consider a third-party bid if a pro-abortion rights candidate wins the GOP nomination. They both agreed that supporting such a bid next year would virtually “guarantee” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) victory.
“Politics by nature is a messy business,” Bauer said. “And you rarely find somebody who agrees with you all the time.”
Perkins agreed with that assessment, but he said social conservatives have not found a candidate who stands out on their issues.
Bauer said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is the most “problematic from the standpoint of values voters.” Both men said they thought that former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) did well in his debate debut, that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney can overcome questions about his religion and — perhaps most surprisingly — that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is perceived to be good on their issues but soft on terrorism.
Perkins and Bauer said social conservatives’ fears of a Clinton win will not be enough to motivate evangelical voters, pointing to Giuliani as a candidate who might not be able to stir evangelical support.
“He gives social conservatives very little to be motivated about,” Perkins said.
But the conservative leaders acknowledged that there is a divide currently among social conservatives as to what is more important to their base, social issues or projected national security strength.
Bauer said the divide is “puzzling” to Washington-based evangelical leaders, but Perkins maintained that once social conservatives know more about Giuliani’s position on abortion, his support would weaken.
“I think it’s a stretch for Mayor Giuliani to get a majority of the social conservative vote once it’s all said and done,” Perkins said.
Perkins said Giuliani would need to experience a “road-to-Des Moines conversion,” and Bauer said Giuliani’s early stumble on federally funded abortions was akin to “sticking your fingers in both eyes” of social conservatives.
Perkins and Bauer said Giuliani has not gone far enough to assuage their concerns by saying that he would appoint “strict constructionist” judges.
“He’s trying to send all sorts of signals,” Bauer said. “But he [has] got a hard sell, and it’s going to take a lot more.”
Perkins cited the influence that the conservative movement has had over the Bush administration, particularly after it was able to pressure the White House to fix what they considered a huge mistake in the form of Bush’s attempt to appoint former White House counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.
“Saying you’re going to appoint conservative judges is not enough,” Perkins said. “I’m under no illusion that social conservatives would have any influence in the Giuliani administration.”
When asked what Giuliani would have to do to allay their fears, Perkins and Bauer said a legitimate conversion on the abortion issue or some sort of behind-closed-doors pledge to be strong on their issues would be required.
Perkins and Bauer said they are both convinced that Romney’s evolution on the abortion issue is a legitimate conversion, “even if the movement tends to coincide with a primary schedule,” as Bauer said.
“I don’t think he’s flip-flopping,” Perkins said.
The two conservative leaders said they remain optimistic that a Republican candidate who is strong on their issues can win next year, but they think Giuliani against Clinton in the general election would be a “frustrating option.”
What does not appear to be an option next year is a break with the GOP in support of a third-party candidate.
While conservative religious leaders said last week the move is something they would consider, Bauer and Perkins said doing so would ensure a Democratic president. Perkins, however, said it is something they would consider in the long run.
“Everybody realizes that a third-party candidate would not work in this election,” Bauer said.