Is the Christian Right's threat to consider supporting a third party candidate smoke and mirrors?
Despite its oft-written obituary -- particularly in the mainstream press -- the Christian right wing in the United States is alive and ... uh, alive.
It continues to be the most significant sector within the Republican Party; it still brings in large sums of money for its various religious and political enterprises; and it still has a well-oiled infrastruture to go along with high-profile well-connected leaders.
Over the past few years, however, the Christian right has suffered more than its fair share of setbacks including the demise of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition; the deaths of movement leaders, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy; Pastor Ted Haggard's sex and drugs scanda; Ralph Reed's connection to the jailed Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff; and a roster of front-running Republican presidential candidates who are less than desirable to so-called values voters.
Now, Dr. James Dobson is threatening to leave the party.
Marquee leaders meet
In late September, the highly secretive Council for National Policy (CNP) met at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah, where Vice President Dick Cheney and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addressed the group.
The CNP was founded in 1981 by Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, and the Rev. Tim LaHaye, the bestselling author of the apocalyptic "Left Behind" book series, as an invitation-only group of well-heeled and well-connected conservative movers and shakers. In 1999, then Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush spoke at a CNP meeting. The transcript has never been released.
During the course of the weekend, a smaller group of marquee movement leaders held their own gathering to discuss what might be done if former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- a lukewarm supporter of abortion rights and gay rights -- wins the Republican Party's 2008 nomination.
A late September ABC News/Washington Post Poll placed Giuliani easily at the head of the pack, with 30 percent support among self-identified Republicans -- twice that of the next lead contender, former senator Fred Thompson, who had 15 percent.
On abortion, Giuliani doesn't stand alone; none of the other top-tier candidates -- Thompson, Sen. John McCain, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney -- have garnered enthusiastic support from religious right leaders.
Attendees at the smaller gathering included James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, one of the nation's largest ministries; Tony Perkins, the head of the Washington-based lobbying group, the Family Research Council; Richard Viguerie, the right-wing guru of direct mail, who recently authored "Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Republican Base"; James Clymer, chairman of the U.S. Constitution Party, a relatively small conservative party; and a host of other Christian conservative leaders.
Viguerie speaks out
Richard Viguerie told ABC News that the meeting was attended by "nationally known conservative leaders, and we took a very strong stand against supporting any pro-abortion candidate."
"Giuliani is beyond the pale," Viguerie said. "It's just not going to happen. There's no way that conservative leaders are going to support a pro-abortion candidate. It was unanimous."
Before last fall's midterm elections, Viguerie declared that a Republican loss might be "cathartic", providing an opportunity for conservative evangelicals within the party. He pointed out that, "In the last six months, I've seen a vast majority of my colleagues, at the national level, move in that direction, including a willingness to go third party. They're even further along on the third-party idea than I am."
According to the New York Times, "almost everyone present at the smaller group's meeting expressed support for a written resolution stating that 'if the Republican Party nominates a pro-abortion candidate we will consider running a third-party candidate,' participants said."
An unsigned piece posted at WorldNetDaily.com -- a conservative online news site -- noted that "Not only was there a consensus among activists to withhold support for the Republican nominee, there was even discussion about supporting the entry of a new candidate to challenge the frontrunners."
Gary Bauer, the head of AmericanValues and a former candidate for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, participated in the smaller group discussion by phone. He later issued a statement urging his colleagues to "be cautious", since he couldn't "think of a bigger disaster for social conservatives, defence conservatives and economic conservatives, than Hillary Clinton in the White House."
Bauer also noted that "that there are certain core issues for the Republican Party -- low taxes, strong defence, and pro-life -- and if we nominate someone who is hostile on one of those three things, it will blow up the GOP [Republican Party]."
There's no question that the leaking of information about the "secret" meeting has created media buzz. But is it an empty threat? A well-placed leak to force the party into rejecting Giuliani?
"The idea that the Christian right would endorse a third-party candidate is ludicrous, given its pathological need to defeat Hillary Clinton and ultimately maintain sway over the White House," Sarah Posner, a freelance journalist who has followed the right for a long time, pointed out in The American Prospect.
In this coalition of the unwilling, Dr. James Dobson is the man to watch. Over the past several months he has nixed supporting McCain because the Arizona senator didn't support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. He questioned Thompson's religious commitment, and recently stated in an e-mail to supporters that Thompson "has no passion, no zeal...And yet he is apparently the great hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!"
Dobson also said that he would rather sit out the election than vote for Giuliani, who he called an "unapologetic supporter of abortion on demand".
Bear in mind that Dobson has been down this road before. He periodically threatens to bolt the party over one issue or another. The threat could be seen as a way to force the party into putting a candidate acceptable to the Christian right, such as former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, on the ticket as vice president. Huckabee, who has performed well in recent polls but is still sitting in the second tier of candidates, is a Baptist minister who opposes abortion and gay marriage, making him an attractive candidate to Dobson, et al.
Successful political movements -- and the Christian right has been both successful and decidedly political for nearly 30 years -- encounter their ups and downs. Key leaders pass on, member organisations overreach and lose their focus, the unaffiliated public loses interest in what they're selling, and internal differences develop.
The threat leveled by Dobson and other leaders of the Christian right against the Republican Party could be seen as a politically savvy stare down, or a desperate attempt to hold onto the levers of power within the party. Dobson is betting that Republican officials will blink.