Religious right is now fighting its own primary

June 10, 1999|By David M. Shribman

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- An invisible political primary is now under way. In country crossroads and in suburban churches, the lines are being drawn, sometimes with bitterness, sometimes with cold political calculation.

But as conventional Republican candidates muscle for advantage in the battle to become the alternative to George W. Bush, should the Texas governor stumble on the road to the GOP presidential nomination, that invisible primary is being fought for the support of the party's increasingly restive -- and increasingly divided -- religious conservatives.

The prominence of the Christian right in the Republican Party is no longer a new phenomenon. Religious conservatives have been the GOP's most visible group for more than a dozen years. But in the past three presidential elections, these voters -- more interested in curbing abortion than in cutting taxes, more committed to increasing moral values than increasing portfolio values -- have generally united behind one candidate. Not this time. This millennial presidential campaign is different in several subtle but significant ways that already have transformed both the party and the primaries.

Courting the right

Now, for example, the struggle by religious conservatives for prominence and power has been replaced with the struggle among GOP candidates for support from religious conservatives. Now the mainstream candidates -- Mr. Bush, Elizabeth H. Dole, Rep. John R. Kasich -- rather than the religious conservative contenders are talking openly, even flamboyantly, about their relationships with Jesus Christ.

And now the mainstream candidates feel a freedom that former President George Bush and Bob Dole never did: They can virtually ignore the abortion issue.

Right now former Vice President Dan Quayle, social activist Gary Bauer, sometime commentator Patrick J. Buchanan and -- the most surprising entrant of all, given the way his father flouted the social conservatives' lifestyle dictums -- publishing billionaire Steve Forbes are engaged in a primary battle all their own, one in which opposition to abortion rights is prominent.

But the very battle for the religious right, a recognition of its importance in the modern GOP, has had the unexpected effect of diminishing its impact in the political world. In 1988, the Rev. Pat Robertson united religious conservatives and took second place in the Iowa caucuses, ahead of Mr. Bush the elder. That won't happen in 2000. Only Mr. Forbes, who this time around is speaking with equal ease about mammon and God, has a chance to break through into the top division of GOP contenders. Though Mr. Forbes is best known for his views on the flat tax, his slogan about creating "a moral basis for a free society" wasn't drafted casually. Far from the attention of the Washington political establishment, Mr. Forbes has been running anti-abortion ads on small radio stations across the country for more than two years -- and quietly assembling a team of organizers with strong ties to religious conservatives.

"In 1996, Forbes wasn't seen as a religious conservative candidate," says Jerry Keen, a former state chairman of the Christian Coalition in Georgia who now is coalitions director for the Forbes presidential campaign. "He was so focused on the flat tax that the other issues didn't get the attention. But he's been very involved, earning his stripes with this group by being out front on the partial-birth abortion issue in New Jersey and opposing assisted suicide in Oregon."

Not that the others aren't fighting fiercely. With Mr. Bush only this week beginning to emerge from his Austin exile, most of the noise in the Republican battle has been the thunder on the right.

Call for an awakening

Mr. Quayle, who calls himself the "conservative values candidate," invested much of his spring in a reprise of his "Murphy Brown" speech and in calling for a "great awakening." Mr. Bauer won attention for his moral offensive in the wake of the Colorado high school shootings and has been vowing that if he were elected he would call on Congress to define unborn babies as persons under the 14th Amendment.

Mr. Buchanan, though emphasizing his twin opposition to trade liberalization and the war in the Balkans, nonetheless retains the affection of the religious conservatives who helped him win second place in Iowa in 1996 and a triumph in New Hampshire eight days later.

Another overlooked factor: The candidates of the social conservatives aren't aiming at Iowa and New Hampshire, the traditional openers to the election season, but instead are mobilizing for early minor political events in Alaska and Louisiana, which are emerging as demolition derbies for the devout. That may give the election year an even earlier start -- but it may help end the primaries earlier, too. Let us pray.

David M. Shribman is Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 6/10/99

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