There are plenty of reasons not to bet on Rudy Giuliani ending up as the 44th president of the United States.
But the news that some angry social-conservative activists might nominate a third-party candidate to oppose Mr. Giuliani in the general election isn’t one of them.
Richard Viguerie, who rose to political fame in the 1970’s and 1980’s as a pioneer of direct mail, told the media this week that about 40 of his conservative brethren met in Salt Lake City and discussed the idea. Dr. James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family, and Tony Perkins, who runs the D.C.-based Family Research Council, were apparently the two other big-name attendees, although Dr. Dobson made it clear that—for now—he is against the idea.
Not surprisingly, the political media treated this discussion as a momentous development, and their logic is certainly reasonable: Christian conservatives are an irreplaceable component of any G.O.P. nominee’s winning formula. Lose those voters to a third-party candidate, and the Republican candidate is tuna fish.
There is a glaring error in this thinking, though: the assumption that Mr. Viguerie and his crew are the arbiters of mass opinion among the vast, loose collection of voters who identify themselves as cultural conservatives. This reflects the familiar, top-down rationale that dominates most political analysis, particularly that which emerges from within Washington.
But if the men who the media deems the “leaders” of Christian conservatives had the pull they are reputed to have, Mr. Giuliani’s ship would have sunk long ago. Surely you recall the early days of Campaign ’08, when those in the know assured us that the former mayor, who dominated every initial poll, would soon be an also-ran, just as soon as the right got wise to his history of social liberalism.
But it’s been months since Mr. Giuliani formally outed himself as pro-choice, and as much as he’s tried to distance himself from it, most people—conservative or not—have by now heard at least something about his lengthy advocacy of gay rights in New York. And his three marriages, and his highly public adultery a few years ago.
The same leaders who gathered in Salt Lake City have sure done their best to sound the alarm.
“I cannot, and will not, vote for Rudy Giuliani in 2008. It is an irrevocable decision,” Dr. Dobson, who supposedly reaches a Republican-rich audience of 3.5 million listeners on his daily radio show, announced back in the spring.
And yet Mr. Giuliani, despite numerous claims over the summer that his demise was finally at hand, is still winning. And he’s not just doing it with moderates and independents, the fool’s gold that John McCain relied on back in 2000. Mr. Giuliani, the first pro-choice candidate with a legitimate chance at the Republican nomination since George H. W. Bush in 1980, is scoring big with the very Christian conservatives his campaign is supposed to offend. For instance, a poll of California Republicans a month ago showed Mr. Giuliani winning 37 percent of born-again Christians, 21 points ahead of his nearest rival. The numbers are closer in the early primary and caucus states—notably, Mr. Giuliani lags behind in Iowa—but it’s also telling that he consistently runs at or near the top of polls in South Carolina, the heart of the Bible Belt.
Maybe Mr. Giuliani will end up falling short of the G.O.P. nomination, but he already seems to have proved that the James Dobsons of the world do not necessarily control the keys to the conservative electoral kingdom.
Mr. Giuliani has succeeded because social conservatives—like most other Republicans—were predisposed from the beginning of this campaign to like him, based largely on his 9/11 reputation. Recognizing this, Mr. Giuliani approached them as a friend, refusing to throw his social heresy in their faces and presenting his abortion view almost apologetically. He has given them the emotional motivation to ignore their differences with him on actual social issues.
For this same reason, a third-party social conservative—who would almost certainly have no money, receive scant media coverage and fail to qualify for some state ballots—wouldn’t attract much more support than any of the other fringe candidates who pop up on the fall ballot every four years.
So why are these self-styled conservative leaders now pushing the idea? Because they have no other tricks left. More than anything, Mr. Giuliani threatens their exalted status within the political world, where Republican candidates are written off by insiders if they don’t cater to the wish lists and litmus tests of groups like the Family Research Council. It’s that reputation that gave them an open line to the White House for the past seven years, and it’s not something they’ll part with easily.
Their game is to scare the G.O.P. establishment out of nominating him with a third-party threat. Republicans shouldn’t be afraid to call their bluff.