Can Fred Thompson Win Over Religious Conservatives?

Deal W. Hudson

September 7, 2007

Former Senator, movie actor, TV star of “Law & Order,” Fred Thompson officially entered the presidential race last week.

It’s remarkable after his bumpy start – with a turnover in his campaign staff and the delay of his official announcement – that Thompson is polling only a single percentage point behind Rudy Giuliani, 23 % to 24%, according to the weekly Rasmussen Reports.

Thompson enters the race polling ahead of Mitt Romney at 13% and John McCain at 12%. (Romney’s support has been staying in the 12% to 14% for ten straight weeks.)

The key to Thompson’s candidacy will be his ability to attract and motivate the religious conservatives who provided the margin of victory for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Many of those voters cannot warm to the pro-abortion Giuliani and have yet to embrace Romney whose pro-life convictions are of a recent vintage.

His appeal to Christian voters hasn’t been helped by the March 28 comments by James Dobson reported in U. S. News & World Report: “Everyone knows he’s conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for,” Dobson said of Thompson. “[But] I don’t think he’s a Christian; at least that’s my impression.”

The reporter Dan Gilgoff did not call Dobson about Thompson – Dobson called him, unsolicited.

Thompson’s campaign denied the accusation, telling Gilgoff, “Thompson is indeed a Christian,” he said. “He was baptized into the Church of Christ.”

Two days later, a spokesman for Dobson released a statement acknowledging Thompson’s profession of faith but added, “Thompson hasn’t clearly communicated his religious faith, and many evangelical Christians might find this a barrier to supporting him.”

Gaining Steam?

The Dobson flap hasn’t kept some prominent religious leaders from gravitating toward the Thompson camp. On July 23, Scott Helman reported in the Boston Globe that Gary Bauer, former presidential candidate himself, and Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council are moving in Thompson’s direction.

“I see a lot in him to be encouraged about,” Perkins said in the Boston Globe interview. “I think he stands the best chance of getting evangelical support.”

Evangelical support is crucial to gaining the GOP nomination. They remain the most loyal supporters of the GOP in spite of President Bush’s low popularity. According to a January 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center, 64% of religiously-active Evangelicals will vote for the Republican presidential nominee.

The weakest support for the GOP came from non-religious voters and Black Protestants. The religiously-active Catholic (non-Latino) support for the GOP was measured at 38%, falling dramatically from the 52% attained in the 2004 election.

Thompson has already demonstrated his awareness of the Catholic vote by being the only candidate to attend the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D. C. in April. The 6′ 6″ Thompson was easy to see at a head table with his wife Jeri and two small children, one born as late as November of last year. (His forty-year-old wife is a former political consultant, including a stint at the Republican National Committee. Thompson is sixty-six.)

How to Win the Primary

Attracting the loyal Evangelical support and reinvigorating the observant Catholic vote will be the one-two punch Thompson will need to win the nomination. The early inroads made by Romney and Giuliani among religious leaders appeared to have peaked. Sen. Brownback and Gov. Huckabee are stuck in low single digits in spite of their good showing in the Ames Straw Poll.

Religious conservatives are not the type of voters disposed toward compromise – they are waiting for a leader who will comport with their sense of political mission. It remains to be seen whether Fred Thompson can assume that role. Thompson doesn’t have Romney’s problem of a recent declaration of a pro-life position. His pro-life voting record was rated 100% by National Right to Life while in the Senate. And in a video sent to the NRTL convention in June, Thompson said

On abortion-related votes, I’ve been 100 percent… On stem cell research, I’m for adult stem cell research, not stem cell research where embryos of unborn children are destroyed. It looks to me like there is a lot of promising developments as far as adult stem cell research is concerned anyway and we don’t need to go down that other road.

He also described partial-birth abortion as “infanticide.”

Not All Clear

Thompson’s position on the other key issue for religious conservatives is less straight-forward. On August 17, Thompson told CNN would try to overturn Roe v. Wade if elected, and would seek for a constitutional amendment protecting states from being forced to honor gay marriages performed in other states.

“I don’t think that one state ought to be able to pass a law requiring gay marriage or allowing gay marriage and have another state be required to follow along.”

This prompted a clarification from the Thompson campaign sent the same day to National Review Online:

Thompson believes that states should be able to adopt their own laws on marriage consistent with the views of their citizens.

He does not believe that one state should be able to impose its marriage laws on other states, or that activist judges should construe the constitution to require that.

If necessary, he would support a constitutional amendment prohibiting states from imposing their laws on marriage in other states.

Fred Thompson does not support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

So the bottom line is this: Thompson’s position allows a state to mandate gay marriage as long as it cannot be exported to another state.

His lack of support for a federal ban on gay marriage led to a statement by Gary Bauer defending Thompson. “A number of us have met privately with Senator Thompson, and he’s made it absolutely clear that he opposes same-sex marriage” (American Family News Network, August 23, 2007).

Debates such as this will be commonplace for Fred Thompson as his outreach to religious conservatives intensifies with tomorrow’s announcement. Unifying that support will be one of the central challenges of his campaign, whether his public political voice will turn out to be as “presidential” as the voice of his TV and film persona remains to be seen.

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