Rudy Giuliani has a problem. It's bigger than he imagines and could doom his presidential prospects. The problem is his pro-choice position on abortion. It's one he cannot finesse by simply saying he "would keep the balance exactly where it is now." That means abortion would remain legal, limited only by a few minor restrictions. For social conservatives in the Republican party--millions of them, I suspect--that situation is unacceptable.
Given Giuliani's skill as a campaigner, he might overcome the abortion problem in the Republican caucuses and primaries. He doesn't need to win a majority to capture the presidential nomination, just finish first in most of the contests. But the general election is another matter. In it, he'd probably have to get 50 percent of the vote, or close to it, to defeat Hillary Clinton or any Democrat.
That's where the social conservatives come in. If Giuliani is the Republican nominee--and he's the frontrunner at the moment--a pro-life candidate is bound to run on a third party ticket. Richard Land, a prominent Southern Baptist leader, says the pro-life presidential effort would be "significant." The question is how significant.
In 2000, Ralph Nader won only 2.74 percent of the vote nationally, but he got enough votes in Florida to keep Al Gore from taking the state and becoming president. Of course this assumes most Nader voters would have voted for Gore over George W. Bush had Nader not been on the ballot. It's a fair assumption. Land believes a pro-life candidate in 2008 would be more formidable than Nader was in 2000.
Social conservatives are a major constituency in the Republican party and for them abortion is a paramount issue. Were a few million to bolt in 2008, either by voting for a right-to-life candidate or not voting for any presidential candidate, Giuliani probably could not win in the general election. A recent Rasmussen poll echoes this point. It found that 27 percent of Republicans would vote for a third party candidate backed by social conservative leaders if Giuliani is the Republican nominee.
Giuliani has softened his pro-abortion position. He now supports both a ban on partial-birth abortions and the Hyde amendment, which bars federal funding of abortions in most instances. He says he wouldn't try to repeal the pro-life plank that's been in the Republican platform since 1980. But social conservative leaders such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Gary Bauer of American Values insist Giuliani is nowhere near to satisfying them. And they are beginning to speak out forcefully on Giuliani's candidacy.
They dismiss Giuliani's vow to nominate "strict constructionist" justices to the Supreme Court as, in Perkins's words, "not enough." At the very least, Giuliani should elaborate on his plans for appointing conservatives, Perkins says. "He's got a hard sell," says Bauer. "It's going to take a lot more than he's done before." Perkins says Giuliani "gives social conservatives very little to be motivated on. There's a line we're not going to cross and that's the life issue."
Perkins told reporters last week that he'd like to see a Giuliani "conversion on the road to Des Moines." That would involve embracing the pro-life position, as George H.W. Bush did after Ronald Reagan chose him as his running mate in 1980. Giuliani has given no indication he'd be willing to do that.
Giuliani will have an opportunity to appeal directly to social conservatives at the Values Voter Summit on October 20 in Washington. The other Republican presidential candidates are speaking there as well, but Giuliani's appearance is the one most likely to affect the presidential race. He will be introduced at the event by Jonathan Falwell, son of the late Jerry Falwell, and there's a way he could assuage social conservatives and potentially minimize defections to a third party candidate--without reversing his pro-choice position. He would have to say something like this:
I fully accept the fact that the Republican party is a pro-life party. And though my personal view is different, I will make no effort whatsoever to change the party's stance and I will oppose any attempt by others to do so. If elected president, I pledge to do nothing--either by executive order or by signing legislation--that would increase the number of abortions in America or make abortions easier to obtain. And I will speak out as president to discourage anyone from having an abortion. I further pledge that if reasonable legislation reaches my desk to reduce the number of abortions, I will sign the legislation or let it become law without my signature. And my administration will defend that legislation in the courts if necessary.
When I asked Giuliani last week about the elements of such a statement, he seemed receptive. Abortions declined in New York when he was mayor, and he suggested the same might happen nationally during a Giuliani presidency. And should Congress pass a bill repealing the Hyde amendment, he said he would veto it.
Perkins says such a statement would "help" to ease anti-Giuliani feeling among social conservatives. Bauer says it would be "a major step." While Land acknowledges that Giuliani "could minimize the damage with statements like that," he says that, as a matter of conscience, he still couldn't vote for Giuliani.
If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee against Giuliani, that will create a dilemma for social conservatives--but not as much of one as the Giuliani camp might think. Social conservatives won't vote for Clinton, who they see as intensely pro-abortion. "ABC, anybody but Clinton, is not enough to attract social conservatives" to vote for Giuliani, Perkins insists.
This is particularly true of young evangelical Christians. They tend to be independents who vote for Republican candidates because they're anti-abortion. A pro-choice Republican would have little appeal to them, even as the lesser of two evils. "It's not enough to scare them with Hillary," says Bauer.
Giuliani told me that he and social conservatives "have the same goal in mind, a society with no abortions. We have a difference on how to get there." Indeed, there is a difference, and that's the core of the problem confronting Giuliani.
Fred Barnes is the executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.