By Jennie Palluzzi
12/07/07 — During the CNN/YouTube debates last week, the Republican
nominees’ performance personified what the American public already
knew: That this year’s race for the GOP nomination is about proving
which candidate is the true conservative.
Yet this year’s field at times has left rank-and-file Republicans
uncomfortable about the field. The front-running Republican
nationally, Rudy Giuliani, is pro-choice, a position that in the past
has been a surefire formula for defeat in a party that has used
abortion rights as something of a litmus test. John McCain, originally
anointed as the likely nominee, collapsed in the polls in part because
of his insistence on seeking a comprehensive rather than hard right
position on immigration reform. And Giuliani’s strongest challenger
until recently, Mitt Romney, is often portrayed as a man who has
shifted right just in time for the presidential campaign.
Is the Republican party preparing to tack back toward the center?
Brian Glenn, an assistant professor of Political Science at Emerson
College, who has followed the race closely, says it is too early to
tell.
“The question is going to be what the hard right voters do?” he
asked. “Do they vote (Mike) Huckabee? (Fred) Thompson? Do they move
towards the center, or do they just stay home?”
Glenn continued handicapping the rest of the field. “McCain is a
moderate who has fared poorly, largely because of his stance on
immigrants, torture and campaign finance. Giuliani is pro-life, and
isn’t all that homophobic, and he’s quite competitive. Romney has
moved right.”
Yet each, from their pitches during You Tube debate and elsewhere, is
doing his best at vying for the title of true conservative to grab the
party’s mantle as the descendent of Ronald Reagan.
Take Giuliani. He says he is personally against abortion, but respects
a woman’s right to privacy. He’s tried to counter-balance socially
moderate positions by aggressively seeking the endorsement of
conservatives and taking tough stances on issues of foreign policy
such as Iran and the War on Terror. And last month, to help guard his
vulnerability on social issues, Giuliani won the endorsement of Pat
Robertson, an influential evangelist who started the Christian
Broadcasting Network.
In the middle on the abortion issue is Mitt Romney, who clearly has
shifted right over the years and has been accused of flip-flopping.
Before becoming governor in Massachusetts, Romney was pro-choice. But
in last week’s debate, he said, “I was wrong. All right. I was
effectively pro-choice when I ran for office…I’m proud to be pro-life,
and I’m not going to be apologizing to people for becoming pro-life.”
Romney has bolstered his own conservative credentials by winning the
endorsements of conservatives such as Paul M. Weyrich, one of the
founders of The Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority, and Bob
Jones III, former president of Bob Jones University, a conservative
Christian university.
Late to the mix came former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who has
consistently been pro-life and has won the support of the National
Right to Life Committee. Wanda Franz, president of NRLC announced the
endorsement on Nov. 13, and said the endorsement was based on
Thompson’s “long-standing pro-life record, his commitment to unborn
children, and our belief in his ability to win.” But Franz’
endorsement aside, the energy and effectiveness of Thompson’s campaign
has come under criticism almost since he declared on talk television
in September.
As the race has picked up momentum, local social conservative leaders
have stayed skeptical about the conservative credentials of the
Republican field. Whether it is a reflection of that skepticism or the
responsiveness of rank-and-file Republicans to his sense-of-humor and
down-home style, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the most
unequivocally conservative candidate on traditional social values,
recently has moved up rapidly in Iowa and national polls. Whether that
momentum lasts remains to be seen. Huckabee’s campaign is short of
funds, His opponents have begun to attack aspects of his domestic
record, and he has little foreign policy experience. But for now he is
running neck-and-neck with Giuliani nationally and has pulled ahead of
Romney in most Iowa polls.
Bill Cotter, the president of Operation Rescue: Boston, a pro-life
organization that protests outside abortion clinics, says the 2008
presidential race has no stellar candidates. “None of them are great
candidates,” Cotter said. “The pro life candidates are not strong
enough to win, and the leaders are not that convincing in terms of
their commitment to the issue.”
Cotter’s viewpoint, that no candidate has closed the sale with social
conservatives is best demonstrated perhaps through the split of social
conservative endorsements. But the lack of a strong Republican
front-runner can also be attributed, perhaps, to a gradual shift in
the definition of conservatism.
Emerson’s Glenn said he believes social conservative issues will
remain strong and may influence some Republicans to cast ballots for
someone other other than Giuliani or Romney.
“Abortion is still the No. 1 issue for many conservative voters,
especially in the South,” he said.
But he added, “I but I don’t think it’s as powerful as it was in past
primaries because of both the war, and the low poll numbers of
President Bush.” Glenn also said he believes voters will be looking
for a candidate who can beat the Democratic front runner, Sen. Hillary
Clinton.
That appears to be the case of Mark Estano, the executive/legislative
aide for the Massachusetts Citizens for Life, an organization devoted
to pro-life issues. He said he agrees with Huckabee on more issues
than any other candidate. But he added, “I would also consider Mitt
Romney, who I consider a strong candidate on the national level.”
Estano nonetheless is convinced the candidates’ positions on abortion
will remain a significant factor in the party’s choice of a nominee.
“I believe abortion will be one of a handful of vital issues that will
decide the outcome of the Republican (primaries) – especially where
Rudy Giuliani is concerned,” he said.
Surely, as the primaries draw closer, Republicans will continue to
play to the party’s “base,” its social conservatives, making
themselves out to be the real conservative’s conservative. In the
end, however, the party’s staunchest conservative voters may find
themselves with a tough choice: whether to cast a vote for a candidate
who polls show is less likely to win, for a candidate who may not
believe what they believe, or for no one at all.