Campaign trail full of surprises

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Like war, presidential campaigns can surprise you. Keep that in mind as you try to figure out the Rev. Pat Robertson's endorsement of Rudolph W. Giuliani's presidential bid.

Mr. Robertson rails against abortion and gay marriage. Yet, he's endorsing a former New York mayor who favors a woman's right to choose, defends gun-control laws and shared a Manhattan apartment for a time with two gay friends.

So why is Mr. Robertson compromising his usual tut-tut moral absolutism to endorse Mr. Giuliani for the White House? The fight against Islamic fascism is of greater importance, says the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network. That's also the thinking of many social conservatives who have given Mr. Giuliani more support than a moderate Republican from New York might expect to get.

Whatever his agenda may be, Mr. Robertson's endorsement and Mr. Giuliani's eagerness to accept it say a lot about Campaign 2008: With the unifying force of President Bush in eclipse, the religious right is up for grabs, and all of the Republican candidates, except perhaps the libertarian maverick U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, appear eager to grab it.

None of the front-runners has won the strong support of conservatives that Mr. Bush captured in the 2000 campaign. That's kicked off an endorsement chase in which Mitt Romney has surged ahead with two big conservative names: Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and Bob Jones III, chancellor of a famous Christian university. Sen. John McCain of Arizona famously criticized Mr. Robertson and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell in his 2000 presidential campaign, but he made his peace with Mr. Falwell before the Christian Coalition founder died this year. Mr. McCain is now endorsed by Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a leading conservative who dropped out of the presidential race and left behind an Iowa organization that Mr. McCain sorely needs in that state.

During the same week, Fred Thompson may have hurt himself with his base on NBC's Meet the Press, when he made this seemingly sensible observation on abortion rights: "I do not think it is a wise thing to criminalize young girls and perhaps their parents as aiders and abettors." Nor should we have a federal law, he said, that "would take young, young girls ... and say, basically, we're going to put them in jail."

The keen ears of anti-abortion activists and media quickly detected a tune Mr. Thompson probably did not want them to hear, the language of their ideological foes in the pro-choice movement.

But the biggest GOP surprise may be coming from Bill Clinton's hometown of Hope, Ark. Oddly, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has not attracted a lot of big-name endorsements from clergy, even though he is one of them. The Southern Baptist minister is a riveting speaker with an engaging personality. He seems to have all the right ideological credentials too. He wants a federal ban on abortion, supports the troop surge in Iraq and supports concealed-weapons permits.

The former governor of one of America's poorest states also says that government's mission should include helping people. He is not shy about expanding children's health care in his state, and he won almost half of the African-American vote. He speaks movingly of dealing with children and families struggling with real problems such as teen pregnancy, drug addictions and family dysfunction.

For this, fiscal conservatives, such as the Club for Growth, which he has called the "Club for Greed," have branded him a closet liberal. But in Iowa, where Mr. Huckabee's focusing his campaign and gaining popularity, the caucus-goers appear to like him.

They also like to keep pollsters on their toes by offering up surprises, like giving a boost to a candidate who doesn't view the phrase "compassionate conservative" as a contradiction.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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