WASHINGTON — Televangelist Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani's campaign Wednesday, a surprising embrace that underscored the divisions among Christian conservatives about the field of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.
By itself, Robertson's support of the former New York mayor was an unusual partnership between a Christian conservative who once blamed the 2001 terrorist attacks on American sins such as abortion and a social liberal who supports abortion rights and gay rights.
But coming the same day that another prominent Christian conservative — Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas — endorsed Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and two days after influential conservative Paul Weyrich endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, it was a fresh sign that one of the most influential blocs of voters in the party remains splintered.
That's good news for Giuliani, and far more important than the largely symbolic value of support from a TV preacher. It suggests that Christian conservatives aren't ready to coalesce behind any single candidate, thus they're unable to stop Giuliani from winning the nomination. Yet the competing endorsements could raise the profile of social issues such as abortion at the very time that Giuliani is working to keep primary voters focused instead on the threat of terrorism and the promise of tax cuts.
"In the short term, it helps Giuliani if he can get his small share of the Christian conservative vote while the rest are splintered among all the other candidates," said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist with close ties to social conservatives.
"But all these endorsements also are going to elevate the cultural issues more, which will energize the base of the party. It may put a target on his back for rivals to raise the cultural issues in coming debates."
Like many Christian conservatives who support Giuliani, Robertson suggested Wednesday that other issues such as fighting terrorism, cutting taxes or reducing crime trump social issues.
"Rudy Giuliani took a city that was in decline and considered ungovernable and reduced its violent crime, revitalized its core, dramatically lowered its taxes, cut through a welter of bureaucratic regulations, and did so in the spirit of bipartisanship, which is so urgently needed in Washington today," Robertson said.
Yet Giuliani's support of abortion rights and gay rights — not to mention his three marriages — make him suspect to many social conservatives.
Other candidates embrace the social conservative agenda but haven't managed to unify support. Why the split? Largely because each of the top-tier candidates has at least some flaw in the eyes of conservatives.
Brownback, who ran briefly for the nomination himself, said Wednesday that McCain had "a consistent 24-year pro-life record of protecting the rights of the unborn" and called him the only candidate who could "lead our party to victory in 2008 while keeping faith with our most cherished values: life, faith and family."
But McCain once criticized Robertson and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell as intolerant, and many social conservatives describe him as an unreliable ally prone to bucking his own party.
Romney drew the backing Monday of Weyrich, a founder of the Christian conservative movement in the late 1970s. But Romney previously supported abortion rights and championed gay rights in a 1994 Senate campaign.
The Republican candidate who may seem the best fit for social conservatives could be former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister with a long record of support for social conservative causes. Yet Mueller noted that many social conservatives think he can't win.
"Some people have become more process-focused than they are principle-focused," Huckabee said Wednesday in Cedar Falls, Iowa. "It's pretty disheartening to see that it's not necessarily based on people saying, `Gosh, these guys have the right principles.' "
Judging from responses from several self-described Christian conservatives at the Huckabee event, the three endorsements may not be all that valuable.
"That probably takes Pat Robertson down more than it would take Rudy up," Glenda Gehrke, 63, of Evansdale, said of Robertson's endorsement of Giuliani.
As for Weyrich's endorsement of Romney: Nobody in Cedar Falls who was asked knew who Weyrich is.
(Stearns reported from Iowa.)