WASHINGTON -- Worried that discontent among conservatives and the lack of a clear standard-bearer to follow President Bush might cost Republicans in November, top evangelical leaders pleaded yesterday with their followers to put aside frustrations and turn out for GOP candidates.
The appeals, coming on the opening day of a weekend-long strategy conference, included frequent entreaties to pastors to use their pulpits on behalf of the social conservative agenda - and to do so without fear of violating tax laws that prevent churches from engaging in partisanship.
"There is no choice, because the alternative is terrible," said James C. Dobson, founder of the influential Focus on the Family group, referring to the potential for a Democratic takeover of the House and Senate in November.
Dobson's organization recently launched a huge voter recruitment drive in eight battleground states that will include placing registration tables outside Sunday worship services at conservative churches.
Kicking off the so-called Values Voter Summit, Dobson joined other evangelical chieftains yesterday in deriding critics who argue that such church-based activism violates the tax code and pledging to defend any pastor who is investigated by the government for speaking out on issues.
The conference, which includes appearances by several potential GOP presidential hopefuls, underscored the evangelicals' growing power in national politics. The agenda serves as a road map for their tactics for energizing voters, including sessions on fighting gay marriage, attacking Hollywood liberalism, denouncing embryonic stem cell research, and framing the GOP's signature issue of terrorism as a matter of "protecting the family" and winning a war between Judeo-Christian traditions and Islamic extremism. "They want to kill us," said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, which used its political action committee to co-sponsor the summit.
Dobson, whose radio show is heard by millions of listeners, said that the war on terrorism is a family issue.
Dobson emphasized that he was not arguing that all Muslims were violent. But, he said, with 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, "a small percentage of a big number is a very big number."
The mentions of terrorism as an issue for evangelicals was the latest indication that conservative strategists are looking for additional motivators beyond gay marriage, which was credited with helping Bush secure re-election in 2004 thanks to a series of ballot initiatives that year in key states such as Ohio. Republican strategists have acknowledged that they intend to mobilize the conservative base by painting Democrats as soft in the face of "foreign threats," as one internal GOP memo recently explained.
But yesterday's events showed that gay marriage remains a central rallying cry, with Dobson, Perkins and others promoting initiatives this year in eight states - and three possible presidential candidates, along with White House press secretary Tony Snow, each winning applause for bringing up the issue during their remarks. "We see America on this collision course between religious freedoms and the homosexual agenda," said Perkins.
Snow moved seamlessly from terrorism to gay marriage as two areas where Bush believes in "defending the family."
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a likely White House contender who is viewed skeptically by many evangelical leaders because he is a Mormon and is viewed as a moderate, said the country "desperately" needs a federal gay marriage ban. He won cheers as he spoke of his opposition to a ruling by his home state's highest court upholding same-sex marriage.
Similar themes were sounded by three other presidential possibilities: Sens. George Allen of Virginia and Sam Brownback of Kansas, along with Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Allen, whose race for re-election this year has tightened after his use of the apparently racial epithet "macaca" and his reaction to revelations that he has Jewish heritage, made no mention of the controversies during his brief appearance. But, once viewed as a possible heir to Bush in the eyes of the party base, Allen won boisterous applause as he asked the conference activists to come to Virginia and assist with that state's gay marriage initiative vote this year.
Two of the party's current front-runners were noticeably absent - Sen. John McCain of Arizona and New York Mayor Ruolph W. Giuliani - a reminder that even as the GOP seeks to mobilize its base to maintain power, the future of the party's leadership remains very much in doubt.
Peter Wallsten writes for the Los Angeles Times.