WASHINGTON -- The most surprising recent national polling result was an answer given by Republicans who attend church weekly when Gallup asked their presidential preference. A plurality chose Rudy Giuliani, a Catholic who in 1999 said: "I don't attend regularly, but I attend occasionally." Their choice raises deep concern among prominent conservative Republicans who feel it would be a serious mistake for leaders of the religious right to scorn the former mayor of New York.
This is threatening to become a major problem because, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Giuliani has stubbornly kept first place in national surveys of all Republican voters. His elevated status cannot be written off as merely superior name identification. He no longer seems uncomfortable as a Republican and clearly dominated the most recent presidential debate last week in Dearborn, Mich. The real possibility that Giuliani might actually be the Republican nominee led a group of religious conservatives, meeting in Salt Lake City Sept. 29 under the leadership of James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family, to consider a third-party alternative.
But the situation is not a simple confrontation between the Christian right and Giuliani. The Gallup data suggests that Dobson and the Salt Lake City group may be out of touch with rank-and-file churchgoers. A well-known social conservative, who asked that his name not be used, is disturbed by Dobson saying he could not vote for Giuliani under any conditions. Apart from being the lesser of two evils against Sen. Hillary Clinton, Giuliani seems to be the positive choice of millions of religious Americans.
In an aggregation of 1,690 interviews with Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in four Gallup surveys during August and September, Giuliani led with 27 percent (to Fred Thompson's 24 percent) among those who said they attended church once a week. Even more startling was the result of interviews with adult voters without regard to party preference. Among churchgoing Catholics, Giuliani led with a plus-38 favorable rating (trailed by Sen. John McCain with a plus-29 and Clinton bringing up the rear with a minus-9).
There is certainly not much in Giuliani's background to attract religious conservatives. After he changed from being a George McGovern Democrat in 1972, his successful 1993 campaign for mayor opposed term limits, school choice and an end to rent controls. As the Republican mayor, he backed Democrat Mario Cuomo's losing fourth-term bid for governor of New York. He consistently has been pro-choice on abortion, pro-gay rights (including gay marriage) and pro-gun control. How anybody that liberal can be the apparent choice of the religious right is attributed by Republican pollster Frank Luntz to Giuliani's reputation for fighting terrorism. "He has turned security into a social issue," Luntz told me.
That does not fully explain the strong support for him by practicing Catholics. Giuliani says he was raised as a Catholic but declines to say whether he practices the religion today. When Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis recently said he would refuse Holy Communion to Giuliani because of his position on abortion, the candidate did not dispute the cleric but merely said, "Everybody has a right to their opinion." There is no evidence that Giuliani attends mass apart from funerals and holidays.
Giuliani's opponents tend to blame his otherwise inexplicable support from churchgoers on the veils of ignorance that in time, they say, will be lifted from the eyes of voters. That implies voters are just too stupid to know the truth about him. One Roman Catholic layman who supports another candidate told me he thought Giuliani's strong Catholic backing was mainly the product of his Italian surname. Other skeptics predict that his churchgoing support will fade before a nominee is selected.
But what if the support holds? Veteran conservative leader Gary Bauer of the Campaign for Working Families does not want to follow James Dobson's rejectionist course, which could pave Hillary Clinton's path to the Oval Office. "If he [Giuliani] is nominated," Bauer told me, "the leaders of the values voters movement need to sit down and do everything possible to avoid a split that would guarantee a disaster for social, economic and foreign policy conservatism. It would require some serious discussions."