GOP presidential hopefuls woo social conservatives

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are attempting to woo socially conservative activists and voters in their campaigns for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. However, social conservatives regard all three candidates with skepticism.

The absence of an administration candidate for the presidency, the aftershock of the midterm election defeat last November, and the narrowing of the primary and caucus election timetable next year has compelled the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination to establish their campaign organizations earlier than anticipated. An essential part of the process is wooing socially conservative activists, organizations and electors almost a full year before the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.

Rove’s legacy.

Thanks partly to the efforts of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, President Bush’s de facto campaign manager in 2000 and 2004, social conservatives are deemed to be the core constituency of Bush’s victorious Republican coalition. The ability to appeal to at least a sizeable slice of that electorate is considered vital to any successful bid for the party’s nomination.

Handicapped front-runners?

The three perceived leading contenders have begun to compete for the support of this constituency. However, all have drawbacks from the perspective of socially conservative activists:

McCain has long had a reputation as a maverick and took on the religious right during his failed 2000 run for the White House.

Giuliani embraced many socially liberal positions while at the helm in New York (e.g., on abortion, gun control and gay rights).

Romney appeared to hold the same moderate views until relatively recently, and his Mormon faith may put off other Christian evangelicals.

“Dark horse” opening?

These mutual disadvantages have led to speculation that it might be possible for an unheralded contender, who can point to an unblemished record of support for socially conservative causes, to overtake the frontrunners. Possible dark horses include former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee or Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Decisive electoral bloc?

However, the dynamics of a Republican presidential contest are different and more complicated than those that apply to the Democrats. Four factors should induce caution about the assumption that social conservatives constitute a “bloc” whose preferences will decide the nomination:

1. Frontrunner advantage. Since the late 1960s, when primary contests began to dominate the presidential-nomination process, it has proved very difficult to derail Republican front-runners — especially compared to their Democratic Party counterparts:

That has been the case even when socially conservative activists have had serious reservations about the leading Republican candidates — as they did in the case of the first President Bush in 1988 and Bob Dole in 1996.

There are few precedents involving a Republican “outsider,” with strongly ideological positions, overcoming minimal national recognition to seize the nomination.

Internet-based insurgency campaigns are less likely to be effective in a Republican campaign than a Democratic one, as the cultures of the two electorates are not the same.

If no “pure” plausible social conservative emerges relatively quickly, then the odds are that leading activists and organizations will be forced to decide whether they deem McCain or Giuliani to be more appealing (or less dangerous), and bargain with them for policy concessions.

2. Nebulous bloc. The term “social conservative” is employed too broadly by much of the media. If the term means holding relatively traditionalist views on questions of personal lifestyles (or being “pro-family”) then the bulk of the Republican primary electorate is socially conservative. If it instead means “evangelical Christian,” then not even in the South do social conservatives constitute a majority. There are many voters with conservative opinions who do not consider themselves to be especially religious — nor do they necessarily make their opinions on these issues the litmus test of their vote.

Therefore, it is possible for candidates such as McCain and Giuliani to appeal to social conservatives without backing all of their positions. McCain’s supporters will make much of his experience, integrity and military record (themes that social conservatives tend to embrace) while Giuliani can point to his leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, as well as his tough record on crime and welfare. Giuliani may also stress his support for federalism, allowing different states to take diverse courses on matters such as abortion or homosexuality (which might make him more acceptable to mainstream social conservatives than his record in office would imply).

3. No litmus test. Therefore, it would not be reasonable to assume, on the basis of complaints by activists, that abortion, gay rights or gun-control laws are questions that could derail a candidate. This is especially true in Iowa and New Hampshire, where these issues have not been prominent historically — although the outright hostility of the Christian Right has proven fatal in the past in the pivotal South Carolina primary. The leading candidates must make overtures to social conservatives, but their ability to do so on their own terms should not be underestimated.

4. “Electability.” The Republican Party is in a state of shell-shock and the entire spectrum of the conservative movement (economic, foreign policy and social) is in a condition of some chaos. Pessimism about the party’s prospects in the 2008 presidential election is probably excessive, given that the nominee will have some scope to distance himself from the Bush administration (as McCain’s recent attacks on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld illustrate). The notion of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) claiming the White House is one that leading social conservatives find especially intolerable. Therefore, sheer electoral fear may compel even social conservative activists to be more pragmatic in 2008 than they would have been if Bush’s poll ratings were stronger, or if the party had retained control of Congress last year. They will be more likely to tolerate a contender who has conservative positions on issues such as crime and taxation, but who is comparatively moderate on personal “lifestyle choices.”

Moderate moment?

These factors are partly responsible for the recent shift in favor of Giuliani. He has benefited from the perception that McCain has tied himself too closely to the policy of boosting troop numbers in Iraq, an option that is currently unpopular. However, such swings at this early stage in the campaign are probably not consequential. In a sense, it is the mirror image of Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) current boom on the Democratic Party side. Nevertheless, it is telling that Giuliani — rather than a purist social conservative — seems to be the beneficiary of McCain’s present troubles.