Back in May 2000, I learned firsthand that James Dobson is a tough man to please.
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Dobson, the prominent Christian conservative who believes that his religious brethren have the God-given right to vet Republican presidential candidates, invited some political journalists to dine with him at his headquarters in Colorado Springs. As we silently forked our pasta salads, Dobson explained why he was so disappointed in frontrunner George W. Bush.
Bush, apparently, was not sufficiently conservative, because he had not yet categorically renounced the idea of choosing Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as his running mate. Ridge was a defender of abortion rights, and this triggered Dobson's ire. Basically, he was threatening to bolt the GOP and take his followers (4 million listeners, 6 million on his e-mail list) along with him.
That day, he told us: "A (party) that abandons the unborn child would send a significant number of people to look for another party to represent them. ... It wouldn't take much. You cannot contradict, you cannot insult the base of your support. ... I know the Christian community. I hear from 280,000 of them per month."
Bush, of course, did not choose Ridge, and Dobson stayed in the fold. But you get the idea. Dobson will vet only those GOP candidates whom he deems to be true believers. Political compromise is for the sinners.
Which brings us to the present moment, an unhappy one for Dobson - and for all his religious-right compatriots. They just can't seem to find an '08 Republican candidate who conforms to their ideals. And this is potentially significant, because Christian conservatives constitute roughly one-third of the GOP electorate; it's rough for a Republican to win a general election if that much of the base is dissatisfied.
Over the weekend, in Salt Lake City, the religious-right leaders conducted a private emergency meeting, in the hopes of sorting out the situation. Dobson reportedly flew in. The upshot: They're threatening to bolt the GOP and urge their followers to do the same if abortion-rights defender Rudy Giuliani wins the nomination next year. They signed onto a resolution stating that, "if the Republican Party nominates a pro-abortion candidate, we will consider running a third-party candidate."
Democrats, of course, would be thrilled if Dobson and his friends followed through on their threat. But that prospect is a long way off. What's noteworthy right now is that religious-right leaders are dividing into two camps: the purists and the pragmatists.
The purists, in search of a savior, find fault with most of the current GOP crop. Many of them dislike former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, for instance, because he once did some lobbying for an abortion-rights group, because he seems insufficiently committed to supporting a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and because he seems insufficiently churchgoing. As Dobson railed in a recent e-mail to his followers, "He has no passion, no zeal. . . . And yet he is apparently the great hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!"
(Here's where it gets really complicated: Some of the purists do like Thompson and believe that Dobson is being unfair.)
Anyway, the purists don't like Giuliani either, for the aforementioned reason, and because he has a messy personal history. They don't like Arizona Sen. John McCain because he has warred with the religious-right leaders in the past. And they're wary of Mitt Romney, because of their suspicions of his Mormon faith, and because Romney now professes to be for their issues, after years of being against their issues.
But the religious-right leaders can't even agree among themselves on how to proceed. The pragmatists include Gary Bauer, who joined the weekend summit by phone and reportedly warned that he and his colleagues should refrain from infighting, lest the nation wind up with Hillary Clinton in the White House. On the other hand, Bauer also made some purist noises, by agreeing with his colleagues that if an abortion-rights defender wins the nomination, "it will blow up the GOP."
At this point, there's probably only one thing that Giuliani can do to tamp down this incipient revolt. He'll probably need to address the assembled religious-right leaders and conveniently arrange for his cell phone to ring midway through:
"Excuse me, let me get this. ... 'Hello? Hiiiiiii ... Well, I'd love to talk, but I'm kind of busy right now. ... Can't wait to talk to you privately, just you and me. ... Yes, I love our relationship, too. ... Love you, bye.' ... Sorry for the interruption, folks. That was God."
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers maye-mail him at dpolmanphillynews.com.