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).