In Christian Coalition, GOP presidential contenders face tough crowd

When Republicans running for president join leaders of the conservative Christian Coalition this weekend in Washington, who will serve the Kool-Aid, and who will drink it?

My guess is Mitt's pockets will be stuffed to bursting with colored powder, and bottles of water to boot, but no matter how passionate and principled he sounds at the Washington Briefing 2007: Values Voter Summit, Romney’s a far cry from closing the deal with this tough crowd.

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As all the top candidates come to court anxious evangelicals on the brink of revolt, lip-pursing, eye-bulging awkwardness promises to consume the gathering of strong moral compasses. It isn't just that these exasperated voters haven't coalesced around one of the less-than-convincing candidates, but that they now accept they can no longer deny the threat of Rudy Giuliani.

To protest the nomination of an abortion supporter, some Christian leaders are mulling the martyr move — back a third-party candidate who would offer pure, un-flipped and un-flopped support for the pro-life platform even though he or she would be sure to lose and then likely help elect the Democratic nominee. The suicide bomber would explode upon the presidential campaign for a short and violent period, after which life would continue and the enemy would take over the White House.

Activist Christians have shopped around for the promising man and come up short. Mike Huckabee, a charming governor with the proper pro-life credentials, gets no love because he isn't top-tier and can't go all the way. Same with Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.). John McCain is as ignored by the Christian Coalition as he is hated by immigration foes; there's no bleeding water from that stone. The community has split on former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.), whose perfect pro-life record in his Senate years can do nothing to undo his support for campaign finance reform and his feisty federalist take on gay marriage. He said recently that his theoretical response to a theoretical governor signing a gay marriage bill would be: “So be it.” Hey, and he doesn't attend church too much, and once lobbied for an abortion rights group, but he still has backers like Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who hasn't “endorsed” but is firmly in Thompson's camp.

Like all groups that crave cohesion, this one is split. The flamethrower, if we are permitted to use that term about evangelical leaders, is Dr. James Dobson, who heads Focus on the Family. He ruled out Giuliani in May but then set his sights on Thompson. Not only did he say publicly that he doubts Thompson is Christian, but he recently sent an e-mail to supporters (ahem, the press) criticizing Thompson for being unable to speak his way out of a paper bag on the campaign trail. “He has no passion, no zeal, no apparent ‘want to,’ ” said the doctor. Thompson laughed it off, saying on Fox News that if Dobson wanted to apologize he could, but “I'm not going to dance to anybody's tune.”

Unfortunately for Republicans, these insults are not the kind used in high-school flirting. There is open hostility between social conservatives and the GOP contenders who had the nerve or stupidity to rise from the ashes of the Bush administration and the loss of congressional majority last fall to run as Republicans for president. The GOP — save for the poor Mormon who must beg for acceptance from the religiously prejudiced — clearly doesn’t care enough about the religious right. If it did, the religious right would have embraced that person a while ago.

Christians advocating a Romney nomination argue that they have more in common with a Mormon than they do with a liberal who opposes them on abortion, gay rights and more. But Romney, who has yet to directly confront the issue of discrimination against his religion, has already irked evangelicals by trying to connect his faith with theirs.

“He has to be very cautious,” Oran P. Smith, president of the Palmetto Family Council in South Carolina, told The New York Times. “When he actually says things that make Mormonism sound like orthodox Christianity, I think that's where he runs into a lot of trouble.”

Everyone is ganging up on Romney. The Log Cabin Republicans, who are gay and hardly allies of the Christian right, recently cut an ad that did their bidding. “A record of fighting the religious right, a pro-choice record, Massachusetts values — Mitt Romney,” stated the ad.

Besides his religion and issue conversions, Romney also suffers from the perception that he is weak and cannot defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton. Hillary Fear is so intense that some Christian leaders have actually been unwilling to criticize Giuliani, who has met with the family of the late Jerry Falwell, including son Jonathan, and was warmly received by Pat Robertson at Regent University several months ago. Robertson even called Rudy a “great leader.”

If Romney can't convince social conservatives that he can beat Giuliani, and then Clinton, they might just choose surrender instead. With the stakes raised so high against their only potential choice, how can he win, and how can the movement stay relevant?

The Rev. Al Sharpton once said the problem with the Christian right is that they haven't met the right Christian. This time, at least, the reverend is exactly right.

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