Zev Chafets

Question: How can the gun-controlling, abortion-supporting, gay-friendly Rudy Giuliani be 25 percentage points ahead of John McCain, his nearest GOP presidential competitor, in the latest Newsweek poll?

Answer: Contrary to popular belief, evangelicals (who comprise the party's base) are fully capable of chewing gum and voting at the same time.

No, evangelicals haven't abandoned the faith-based domestic agenda that brought them to the polls for Bush in 2004. But, in wartime, they have other concerns as well.

I saw this on display last year when, at a D.C. evangelical banquet, Rudy stole the show from (just-indicted) Tom DeLay. DeLay spoke in the emotional cadences of the southern church; Giuliani sounded like a Brooklyn civics teacher. But Rudy got the bigger ovation.

Once again, much of the audience at last weekend's CPAC convention in Washington was social conservatives, but once again, Rudy refused to pander to them. "We disagree on maybe 20 percent of the issues," he acknowledged. For this, he was rewarded with cheers and an impressive second-place finish in the convention's straw poll.

Giuliani's honesty wasn't an act of simple courage.

The ex-mayor is far too calculating for that. He knows — as the other Republicans are now realizing — that, all things being equal, wartime leadership is the most important issue for evangelicals.

And, in this race, all things are pretty much equal, at least among the major candidates: They're all sinners. Sure, Rudy is a big-city Catholic. But Mitt Romney is a big-city Mormon, a religion many evangelicals see as "heretical." Even those who'll overlook theology are highly skeptical of Romney's recent breathless conversion to the Christian right's social agenda. Nobody likes a flip-flopper from Massachusetts.

As for McCain, despite his pilgrimage to Jerry Falwell, he has not been forgiven by the evangelical rank-and-file for his "agents of intolerance" crack in 2000. Conservative Christians, who tend to see themselves as a scorned and despised community, will not readily vote for someone who has mocked them in public and — many suspect — is still mocking them privately.

The evangelical leadership doesn't like McCain, either, mostly because of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law. Whatever Sen. McCain's intention, one result of this legislation is that it has cut off money from the GOP to faith-based precinct captains. Such a transgression makes Rudy's occasional cross-dressing no more than a cultural misdemeanor.

Indeed, outsiders often underestimate the evangelical tolerance for human frailty. Falwell's own museum at Liberty University prominently features his father — a locally infamous bootlegger who shot and killed his own brother.

Zev Chafets

Zev Chafets is a former columnist for the New York Daily News, as well as the author of nine books of fiction, media criticism, and social and political commentary, including "A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man's Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance," published by HarperCollins in January 2007.

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