'Straight talk' on religious right

March 01, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- John McCain is taking an extrordinary political gamble with his blunt attack on Pat Robertson and the religious right.

It is a strategic stroke that might give him the Republican presidential nomination but leave the party itself in a shambles.

What the Arizona senator has done is say out loud what many Republican leaders have been saying privately -- that they resent the influence of the Christian fundamentalists in shaping both policy and national tickets.

On the one hand, this willingness to confront Mr. Robertson and others on the extreme right may help Mr. McCain turn out more Republicans who share his views in primaries next week here in New York and five New England states in which the fundamentalists are not a major political force.

On the other, Mr. McCain's attack on Mr. Robertson is certain to be a rallying cry for the Christian Coalition and its supporters and intensify their commitment to Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. Mr. McCain will enjoy little hope of winning any substantial number of delegates in the South.

The gaping fault line in the Republican Party has been obvious for years although party leaders have been reluctant to face up to it.

Thus, at nominating conventions, the Republicans keep passing platforms that endorse a constitutional amendment that would forbid all abortions, although that is not the majority party opinion.

The religious right also has a veto power over the ticket, preventing the presidential nominee from choosing a running mate who is not opposed to all abortions. This has ruled out, in the eyes of the Christian Coalition, not only such governors as Christine Whitman of New Jersey and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania but also Colin Powell.

Abortion is not the only issue for the religious right. There is strong hostility to homosexuality and strong support for prayer in the public school, for instance.

It is this moralistic tone that has driven a wedge in the party. In both the 1992 and 1996 elections, Bill Clinton swept both the Northeast and Midwest principally on the strength of support from alienated moderate Republicans and independents.

The bottom line was that the fundamentalists were strong enough to be the tail wagging the dog in intraparty affairs but not enough of a force to carry a national election.

Neither Mr. McCain nor Mr. Bush was totally satisfactory to the far right early in the campaign. Many of these most conservative Republicans favored Steve Forbes, who had joined in becoming a moral absolutist. A few supported Dan Quayle, Alan Keyes or Gary Bauer.

Neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. McCain was willing to promise to make opposition to abortion rights a litmus test for judicial appointees or to make a commitment to a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe vs. Wade. But Pat Robertson was politically practical enough to recognize that there were only two candidates with a realistic chance to be nominated. And he obviously could find no ground for supporting someone like Mr. McCain, dedicated to reforming campaign finance laws in ways that would dilute the coalition's influence.

Moreover, from the outset the opinion polls and all other indicators pointed to Mr. Bush as the candidate who could defeat Vice President Al Gore and give the Republicans their best chance of holding Congress.

Bush was happy to have Mr. Robertson's backing. It paid handsome dividends in South Carolina, where the huge turnout of the religious right Republicans gave the Texas governor a critical primary, his fire wall after losing New Hampshire by 19 percent. Those same Republicans could save his skin again later this month.

But for now the Texas governor is stuck with the image of himself as Pat Robertson's favorite, hardly an endorsement that plays well with moderate Republicans. John McCain has been presenting himself throughout the campaign as the candidate of "straight talk." Now he's demonstrated just how far he is willing to go.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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