Video: Giuliani gets Pat Robertson endorsement

updated 11/8/2007 1:43:03 PM ET 2007-11-08T18:43:03

If there was ever a doubt that the GOP's conservative wing remains deeply divided about their White House field, it evaporated this week. And that's very good news for Rudy Giuliani. Conservatives are even divided over the one issue that ultimately unites them: Hillary Rodham Clinton. They all want to defeat her. But they disagree over which Republican is best-equipped to do so.

The split crystallized when three of the most respected names in conservative circles -- Sam Brownback, Paul Weyrich and Pat Robertson -- lined up behind very different candidates in the GOP race. All endorsements are not created equally (more on that below). And it's perhaps just as interesting to consider whom these guys are backing, as whom they're not. (Did somebody say Mike Huckabee?) But more importantly, the divergence of three top voices on the religious right offers the clearest picture yet of the challenge Republicans face in uniting the influential wing behind them before January.

Failure to do so might not seal the GOP nominee's fate next fall, but it could present perhaps his most daunting headache he'll face on the road to the White House.

Giuliani's strategy from Day One has been to solidify his moderate base while downplaying his support for abortion and gay rights and appealing just enough to conservatives on taxes, crime, judges and, of course, national security.

Giuliani is currently locked in a tight battle with former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson for the evangelical vote. (The former New York City mayor led slightly in a late-October Quinnipiac poll, while Thompson edged him out in a CBS News survey [PDF] conducted in mid-October.) But that, again, is good news for the mayor. He doesn't need to carry the community decisively; he just needs their vote to be divided evenly enough between his rivals. Which, apparently, it is.

Robertson -- the founder of the Christian Coalition and host of "The 700 Club," as well as the second-place finisher in the '88 Iowa caucus -- was reading from the Giuliani campaign script Wednesday when he explained his surprising decision to back the twice-divorced New Yorker, whose possible nomination recently sparked talk among conservatives of a third-party bid. "To me, the overriding issue before the American people is the defense of our population from the bloodlust of Islamic terrorists," Robertson said.

Not abortion. Not gay marriage. But terrorism.

Robertson may know his community better than Beltway pundits do. The CBS News poll showed that abortion and gay rights have plummeted as a priority for evangelical Christians. Today, they aren't even among the top four priorities evangelicals want presidential candidates to discuss. Health care and Iraq dominate, followed by the economy and immigration.

But that's exactly where the split exists, and that's why two longtime allies like Robertson and Weyrich are divided in this campaign. A vocal minority of social conservatives, like Weyrich, remain focused on the issues that helped them organize their base two decades ago. To them, President Giuliani would destroy the Republican Party. Rate candidates' positions

One of them, Steve Scheffler, president of the powerful Iowa Christian Alliance network and an Iowa GOP kingmaker, fired off a blistering statement after Robertson's endorsement. "Social conservatives such as Pat Robertson who back pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage candidates do a disservice to the conservative movement," Scheffler said. "At the end of the day, we have to stand for something, or our movement has no purpose."

Conservative direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie also spoke out against the endorsement. "Far too many conservative leaders have become Republicans first before they are conservatives," he told the Concord Monitor. "They've drunk deeply of the Republican Kool-Aid."

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Mitt Romney, who addressed Regent University's graduating class in May and started aggressively lobbying Robertson for his support last winter, took solace this week in support from Weyrich, a founder of the Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority. Weyrich directly took a shot at Giuliani in saying Romney represents a far better opportunity for Republicans to beat Clinton. "I don't want Giuliani as the nominee because a lot of our values voters will defect," Weyrich said.

Talking to reporters in South Carolina on Wednesday, Romney dismissed Robertson's endorsement as insignificant. "Not at all," he said, when asked whether it would be a factor in the race. "I don't think the Republican Party will choose a pro-choice, pro-gay-civil-union candidate to lead our party."

Brownback's endorsement ofJohn McCain carries less weight than the other two. But it could provide the Arizona senator with a much-needed boost in fundraising at a time when insiders say he again faces a serious cash crunch, and Brownback's organization in Iowa (the only state in which he was remotely competitive) remains largely intact and loyal to the Kansas senator. "I wouldn't let him give up on Iowa," Brownback said this week of McCain. "If John would invest the resources in Iowa, he's got a real chance there."

While Brownback flirted briefly with the prospect of supporting Giuliani, sources said he never seriously considered doing so. Shortly before quitting the race, Brownback said he doubted Giuliani's record on social issues would prevent him from winning the nomination. And as recently as this week, he introduced a tough Senate bill that called for federal funding cutoffs to organizations that perform abortions. (Interestingly, though, the letter he drafted with Sen. David Vitter, a Giuliani supporter, was not signed by McCain.)

And again, as Brownback said in announcing his endorsement, conservatives cannot take their eye off their real target. "John McCain," he said, "is the best pro-life candidate to beat Hillary Clinton."

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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