WASHINGTON — The Republicans’ first primary contest is next week, and it’s not in New Hampshire. It is in Orlando, at the annual meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters. GOP presidential candidates will be there to try to generate buzz that will translate into evangelical airtime — and support in the “base” in 2008.
Unlike 2000 (and of course 2004) George W. Bush and Karl Rove don’t have the event wired. So it is wide open — just as the Republican nomination race is — and so Orlando is an important pit stop, especially for Sen. John McCain, former Gov. Mitt Romney, former Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback. All of them want to win the nomination by building from “the base” outward, the way it’s been done in the party since the days of Reagan.
One candidate will be conspicuous by his absence: Front-runner Rudy Giuliani. I am told that he won’t be there, but in a sense he doesn’t have to be. He’s not trying to win by getting right with the religious conservatives on cultural and faith issues. If he is going to get their votes, it will be through other means, or by default in a general election race against, say, Hillary Clinton.
The Three Kingmakers
Because there is no obvious and overpowering standard-bearer for the cause of the religious right, age-old fault lines and feuds are re-emerging among the titans who control the Sacred Satellite Dishes. Each of them thinks that he can anoint the One.
The Three Kingmakers have familiar names and big, traditional audiences on radio, television and now, the Internet: the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Dr. Pat Robertson and Dr. James Dobson. A younger generation (or two) is coming along, but these remain big brand names in the burgeoning world of all-Christian commerce.
There are two main fault lines among them: the one in Virginia, which separates Falwell and Robertson; and the one that separates Dobson, in his mountain fastness of Colorado Springs, from those he genially regards as amateurs (everybody else).
Here’s how the dynamics are working right now. Falwell’s anointee-designate is McCain. The reasons are personal but, more important, historical and, in a sense, familial.
McCain, Bush and Falwell
The Founding Father of modern TV preachers in politics, Falwell has been reverend-in-residence in the Bush family for 20 years. Back when Ronald Reagan was president, the late Lee Atwater cultivated Falwell on behalf of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. Falwell became Bush’s trusted ally in the 1988 race, and in the losing race for re-election in 1992. In both campaigns, Falwell got to know George H.W. Bush, and Falwell was instrumental in helping to unify the mega-preachers behind Junior in the 2000 race.
McCain and Falwell went at it in 2000 — the senator called him an “agent of intolerance” — but things have changed since then. McCain and his advisers decided that the route to the nomination in 2008 lay in loyalty to the Bush legacy, and to Bush personally. It was a natural step, then, for McCain to begin cultivating Falwell, the family political preacher. He has done just that — and Falwell has been only too happy to help “educate” McCain on the issues.
Last May, McCain delivered the commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University.
But the Falwell-McCain alliance cost the candidate whatever chance he might have had to gain the support of Virginia’s other leading religious broadcaster, Robertson. The Commonwealth is barely big enough to contain the both of them: their differences are deep — theologically, organizationally and personally. To the Yale-educated Robertson, son of a senator, Falwell is a country upstart. I’ve always thought that one reason Robertson mounted his own campaign for the presidency in 1988 is that he couldn’t abide the original Falwell-Bush alliance.
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So Robertson has to have his own candidate, and there is no way it would be McCain. The good doctor seems to have taken a liking to Romney, whose father was a governor and who had the good sense to get graduate degrees from Harvard. Robertson’s CBN network ran a glowing profile of Romney, a piece that studiously ignored some of the Mormon doctrinal teachings that would seem calculated to make even Robertson’s helmet of TV hair stand on end.
Romney is expected to be the commencement speaker this May at Robertson’s Regent University.
Among the Three Kingmakers, it seems that only Dobson is unsure of his nominee. He seems to be working by the process of elimination. He already has declared that he would not personally vote for McCain — take that, Jerry — but in a lesser-noticed interview he also said that he could not vote for Giuliani (no surprise there).
Dobson has said nice things about Romney, but at a private meeting of Christian activists in Washington last week, I am told, he made the case — at least for the sake of argument — for Huckabee, the personable former Arkansas governor who also spent a good bit of his career as a Southern Baptist preacher.
I always thought that Huckabee was the logical candidate for religious conservatives — the next step in the progression. If you want to put God in the public square, why not get a preacher to do it? Eliminate the middleman — or men.
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