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Has the Religious Right Found Its Man in Thompson?

By David Domke

In the minds of some religious conservatives, all signs suggest Fred Thompson is the new chosen one.

Here's what Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention had to say in early April: "Fred Thompson reminds me of a Southern-fried Reagan. To see Fred work a crowd must be what it was like to watch Rembrandt paint."

In June Southern Baptist executive committee president Morris Chapman, who said he hasn't settled on a candidate yet, nonetheless added: "Another Southern Baptist called Fred Thompson the Ronald Reagan of the South, and I think he has some of that appeal. He is a magnetic personality. He seems to articulate his opinions clearly. He seems to be unflappable."

Every Republican presidential candidate over the past two decades has invoked the legacy of Reagan--characterized by optimism, love of nation, geniality, and a television-friendly persona. But Thompson is the first GOP candidate to be consistently talked about as Reaganesque. The SBC's Land, in fact, has been the leading proponent of this comparison. Others are getting on the bandwagon.

The Warming of the Right

In his shadow campaign Thompson has been doing some heavy outreach to evangelicals. In this week's U.S. News & World Report, Dan Gilgoff reported that Thompson hired Bill Wichterman, who served as conservative outreach director for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Joseph Cella, president of conservative Catholic group Fidelis, to set up meetings with leading evangelicals.

It's paying off.

In late March, Focus on the Family's James Dobson said he doubted that Thompson was a Christian. But Gilgoff--whose 2007 book The Jesus Machine documents the rising political influence of Dobson--reported that Dobson is now "rumored to be reassessing Thompson." Indeed, a Dobson spokesman laid out the political pathway for Reagan, er Thompson, telling CNN that "Thompson hasn't clearly communicated his religious faith, and many evangelical Christians might find this a barrier to supporting him."

Translation: show us a sign--a public sign--and we'll believe. Expect Thompson, therefore, to deliver a high-profile speech about values and faith in the coming months, perhaps even before he kicks off his campaign (now rumored to be set for just after Labor Day).

Of course, Mitt Romney has also been courting social conservatives, but his Mormon beliefs and questioned shifts on abortion and same-sex marriage present him with significant challenges. Consider that in the most recent data on religious voters, a poll conducted for Time magazine in May, Romney's approval rating among Protestants was far lower than that of other GOP candidates: McCain and Giuliani were each viewed favorably by roughly 55% of Protestants, whereas only 29% viewed Romney in the same light. This may be changing, but that's a chasm that won't be easily crossed.

The combination of Romney's struggles among religious conservatives and John McCain's campaign implosion suggests that a defining moment is at hand in the GOP contest. An embrace by religious conservatives of Thompson could turn the Republican Party primary into a two-man contest: Thompson vs. Rudy Giuliani, whose appeal in the party is strongest among moderate voters.

The New Nixon?

It is not remotely a coincidence, therefore, that the dalliance of Thompson with conservative evangelical leaders is being accompanied by a renewed line of attack on Giuliani. If Thompson is being painted as the new Reagan, how might we conceive of the polls-leading Giuliani?

Did someone say Richard Nixon?

Yes, someone--someone important--did. Michael Gerson is the well-known former speechwriter for President Bush and a graduate of evangelical Wheaton College. He now writes regular opinion pieces for Newsweek and the Washington Post, and on Wednesday he delivered a Post piece headlined "R. Milhous Giuliani." Subtle it wasn't.

Gerson declared Giuliani to be another Nixon, whom Gerson characterized as "a talented man without an ideological compass." In Gerson's view, the "loose ideological moorings" of Giuliani can be attributed to two primary sins: Giuliani is "the most publicly secular major candidate of either party" and stands in opposition to the Catholic Church--the religious home of Rudy--on issue after issue, starting with abortion.

Gerson is nothing if not clear in his conclusion: conservative Catholics and evangelicals will desert the GOP in November 2008 "if the Republican nominee is not Reagan's heir but Nixon's political twin."

If Thompson needs to provide a sign about his faith, Gerson's broadside on Giuliani can be interpreted as another kind of public signal: conservative evangelicals have found their man, and he isn't from New York.

For decades the distinct wings of the Republican Party--social moderates and social conservatives--have struck an uneasy alliance. But on the heels of the 2006 elections and the public disillusionment about Iraq and George W. Bush's consistent religious rhetoric, this alliance will be tested. It's obvious who's lining up on Thompson's team.

David Domke is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. You can reach him by emailing domke@u.washington.edu.

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