A behind-the-scenes struggle among politically active Evangelicals could boost former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s 2008 presidential ambitions.
Some Christian conservative leaders now say the global fight against Islamic extremism trumps the social issues, such as opposition to gay rights and abortion, that pushed the religious right into the political big leagues — a fight they depict as a to-the-death clash of civilizations.
Giuliani’s tough talk and artful positioning on the issue and carefully nurtured 9/11 reputation have won him strong support from that faction despite a personal history that offends many “values voters” and his relatively moderate positions on hot-button issues like abortion.
Giuliani could be the “leading beneficiary” of that shift in the Evangelical movement, said Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg.
“The fact is, some Evangelicals are now far more concerned with radical Islam than with their traditional issues,” he said. “That gives Giuliani the opportunity to mend fences in the evangelical community.”
At the same time, Giuliani’s increasingly hawkish views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — recently he broke with the Bush administration and most other Republican presidential candidates by opposing Palestinian statehood — could also boost his chances with a critical constituency that, until now, has been dubious about his candidacy.
“Why not be a Christian Zionist in 2008?” Ginsberg asked. “It gives him a strong issue that resonates with the Evangelicals, and in no way reminds people of his wives and his affairs. He’s a smart guy.”
While political insiders contend the former mayor has not tailored his views on the Arab-Israel conflict to suit that constituency, several agreed that the campaign is now starting to play the issue more aggressively, with the pro-Israel evangelicals clearly in their sights.
“It’s a win-win for him,” said a longtime Jewish Republican who is supporting another GOP contender. “The more hawkish he is on Israel, the better he does with some important Evangelicals, despite his views on their other big issues. And it doesn’t hurt him with Jewish Republicans either, although it could prove to be more of a problem if he wins the nomination and then has to appeal to a wider group of Jewish voters.”
Recent news reports have focused on an emerging split between social conservatives who want to retain their movement’s focus on the “values” agenda and groups favoring an expanded political agenda to include global warming, international human rights and globalism.
But an even bigger split may center on powerful Evangelical leaders who say the fight against terrorism – and against what they portray as a rabidly anti-Christian Islamic extremist scourge that threatens to destroy Western civilization – now takes precedence over other issues, at least in the short term.
“There is a debate going on within the Evangelical community about prioritization,” said David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, the organization created and headed by Pastor John Hagee. “Some are saying that the No. 1 ‘values’ issue now is the war with militant Islam, and our own struggle for survival.”
But other voices in the Evangelical community, he said, are “saying that issue is important, but we cannot forget issues such as abortion and gay marriage.” The influential Pastor Hagee has not taken a position in the emerging debate. But his longtime focus on Israel’s battle against terrorism and his increasingly strident language about militant Islam seems to put him on the side of those arguing that the terrorism issue should define Evangelical political activism in 2008.
Brog said that Gary Bauer, the head of the group American Values and a former GOP presidential contender, is also pressing to make the fight against Islamic extremism the top issue for that community.
This week Bauer told the Brody File — a leading evangelical political blog — that “I’m in this for moral issues and it’s hard for me to understand what is a bigger moral issue than preventing the destruction of Western civilization.”
On the other side of the internal Christian debate are leaders such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family. He continues to emphasize the values issues that were so prominent in the last few election cycles.
Dobson generated news recently with a harshly worded e-mail challenging the conservative credentials of former Sen. Fred Thompson, the newest entry in the GOP race.
John Green, a University of Akron political scientist who studies the intersection of religion and politics, said that the mounting debate in the Evangelical community “is about priorities, not ideology. These are all still mostly conservatives.”
He said that the shift in priorities might already be having a big impact on the GOP campaign in general — and Giuliani’s effort in particular.
“Many pollsters have been amazed at how well Mayor Giuliani is doing among conservative Christians in poll after poll, despite the fact he is pro-choice and has been married three times and all those things that one would expect would be a problem for conservative Christians,” Green said. “It may be that his foreign policy and national security credentials are the things that are helping him.”
The same calculus could be part of Giuliani’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Most Democrats are avoiding controversial statements and positions on the issue. For example, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent Mideast position “had nothing in it to generate any controversy at all, or any interest” according to a leading Jewish Democrat.
And most Republicans are walking a cautious line by talking tough about Israel’s enemies while not challenging President Bush, who has made Palestinian statehood a priority.
Not Giuliani. In the current edition of Foreign Affairs magazine he announced strong opposition to Palestinian statehood, saying “It is not in the interest of the United States, at a time when it is being threatened by Islamist terrorists, to assist the creation of another state that will support terrorism. Palestinian statehood will have to be earned through sustained good governance, a clear commitment to fighting terrorism, and a willingness to live in peace with Israel.”
That kind of position could help with small groups of Jewish voters – including Orthodox swing voters and some younger, security-minded Jews, several political observers said. But the real jackpot may be with the emerging faction of evangelical leaders and voters who regard the twin issues of Israel and Islamic extremism as top priorities.
“Rudy has always been a master at trying to divert the conversation to the things he’s strongest on,” said Fred Zeidman, a Texas Jewish Republican, longtime friend of President Bush and, now, a backer of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential race. “He might be doing that in this case.”
“It’s a way for Giuliani to try to make up for his shortcomings on the social issues with that community,” said Lee Cowen, a Republican political consultant in Maryland. “The issues are all related – Israel and the Palestinians, terrorism and Islamic extremism.” Some Jewish Democrats worry that the former mayor is the GOP contender with the best chance of increasing the Republican tally from Jewish voters.
But other Democrats say Giuliani’s improving ties with the religious right could be a big turnoff to those swing voters.
“On paper, Giuliani looks like the strongest candidate the Republicans have among Jewish voters in 2008,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC). “His strength, which is that he is perceived as relatively moderate by Jewish voters, may be undermined if he gets too close to the Evangelical community on the kind of war against Islam that they portra