Beliefnet
J Walking

The most important constituency watching last night’s Republican debate is the broadly-defined religious right. It is a group in huge transition – more and more evangelicals are rejecting the abortion- and gay marriage-only focus – but, it is obviously the most important group for the Republican primaries. So, the obvious question. Who won the first leg of the Religious Right Derby?

Keep in mind this race, this commentary is only and purely from the perspective of the religious right.

They left the starting gate together and stayed together as a pack during Iraq. They basically said all the requisite things about Iraq – that it was basically a noble cause despite huge screw ups and it was important to keep those radical Muslims at bay.

But then, rounding the first turn Cong. Tancredo shot to the front of the pack…”…if there is a threat to the existence of Israel.. [it] is… I think a potential threat ot he the existence of the United States.”

Shortly after that, however, Gov. Romney talked really tough on Osama, “…he is going to pay, and he will die.” Not quite Dirty Harry, more like Dirty Jesus.

Romney stretched his lead with his “Gosh. I love you America” answer. “What makes America the greatest nation in the world is the heart of the American people: hardworking, innovative, risk-taking, God-loving, family-oriented American people.”

On the Roe v. Wade question, Sen. Brownback makes a bit of a move forward by saying that the day it is overturned wouldn’t simply be a nice day or a good day but, “a glorious day of human liberty and freedom.”

Mayor Giuliani was showing signs of religious right life too saying it would be ok with him if Roe were repealed.

So into the back straightaway we’ve got Romney with a good lead followed by Brownback and Giuliani with the rest of the pack on their heels.

Romney puts more distance between himself and rivals, however. He answers the abortion question the way the religious right understands. He’s had a change of heart. He’s seen the light. He is the political Paul on the road to Damascus. He was once pro-choice, he is now pro-life and to the religious right that makes all the sense in the world. His heart has been changed. Others may call that being a flip-flopper. In this context, however, he has become holier, “I said I was wrong and changed my mind and said I’m pro-life.”

Brownback tries to keep up the pace, “I believe life is one of the central issues of our day, and I believe that every human life at every phase is unique, is beautiful, is a child of a loving God, period.”

Giuliani is keeping up surprisingly well. Now he is supporting the Hyde Amendment and hating abortion.

But then…a stumble. He’s asked about paying for abortions as mayor of NYC. And he defends it. Uh oh. No change of heart. Indeed he’s beginning to look…Clintonian… “I’m personally opposed but…”

Meanwhile, Gov. Huckabee calls America “a city on a hill” echoing not only Reagan but Jesus. And then he paraphrases the old “America is great because America is good” line that conservative politicians have been saying Tocqueville said but didn’t.

Gov. Thompson says that gay workers have no employment rights. That plays well.

Romney talks comfortably about faith and how important it is. This guy is beginning to sound like Reagan to the religious right.

Brownback is his nearest competitor and he pulls the “we’ve had 40 or 50 years, now, of trying to run faith out of the public square.” That is an important thing for the religious right – that they are being discriminated against…despite Reagan and Bush and Bush and controlling both houses of congress.

Giuliani stumbles more. He is asked about Christian conservatives and their influence in the party and shoves it aside saying sure it is good but he wants to talk about how Democrats are good people too. He has fallen to the rear of the pack and has, perhaps, pulled up lame.

Brownback, meanwhile, is talking about strong families and a strong culture and out of wedlock birth and themes the religious right pushed hard in the 1990s when people like Bob Dole took on Hollywood.

For every move Brownback makes, Romney counters quickly. He starts talking about all he can do as president to counter abortion and Giuliani officially pulls up lame. He says he is pro-choice but is waffling around in a way that only brings Bill Clinton to mind for the religious right. He’s for this and against that but only when that happens but all the while he thinks abortion is bad. Uh oh.

Romney is looking like Secretariat. On the embryonic stem cell answer he corrects the moderator who thinks he’s blown the question by talking about “altered nuclear transfer” creating embryo-like cells. Minutes later he slams a Sen. Clinton by dissing “Hillary care.” For the religious right it doesn’t matter how the Clinton’s are dissed just that they get slammed.

Giuliani starts talking about “a tamper-proof card, a database” and religious righters everywhere are thinking about that “666” on the forehead – the national ID card that they think the anti-Christ will require (no joke).

Brownback jumps “we don’t need a new ID.”

But by that time Gov. Romney is across the finish line, in the barn, getting a massage. Not even the evolution question could stop his massive win.

Mitt Romney wins. How big? Think Secretariat at Belmont in 1972:

Gov. Romney still has lots of issues with the religious right. There is his Mormon faith. Many in the religious right think Mormons are cultists. There is his really, really odd taste in fiction – he’s said that Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth is his favorite book. But he has broken from the pack and made a believer out of a lot of folks on the religious right.

Sen. McCain was quiet and finished safely in the middle of the pack. Mayor Giuliani is still out there on the track somewhere and Sen. Brownback ran well. Off to the next leg…

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