Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, who faces dangerously low levels of support among white evangelical voters and mounting criticism from Christian right leaders, made a surprise visit to the Christian Coalition’s Road to Victory conference Saturday to plead for support with a promise to sign the “partial-birth abortion” ban into law.
After weeks of playing down the importance of social and religious conservatives, Dole, who had not been scheduled to appear, made a last-minute decision to introduce his running mate, Jack Kemp, to the gathering. He told the more than 4,000 activists, “We understand your commitment. We understand your strength, and I would ask you for your full and complete support every day, every day between now and November 5.”
Just hours before Dole arrived, Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, issued a strong warning to the GOP nominee: “The people (running the Republican) presidential campaign have persuaded themselves that evangelicals and family values are something akin to leprosy. … But I want to say this as clearly as I can: This campaign for the presidency is far behind. Twenty-three points is about as insurmountable an obstacle as I can think of. And in my personal opinion, there has got to be a miracle from Almighty God to pull it out. And that could happen.”
Then, speaking as if Dole were there, Robertson said: “We would really like to see you win this election, but you are not going to win it running for chief accountant. You are going to win it running as the moral leader of the United States of America.”
Both Dole and Kemp went out of their way to honor members of the coalition and quash any suspicions that they viewed members as lepers. “I want you all to know that I could not be here today as a candidate for vice president of the United States of America were it not for the prayers of the men and women in this room and throughout the country,” Kemp said.
“As Christians, we are often asked, ‘How can you be a Christian and be involved in politics?’ But we ask, ‘How can you be a Christian and not be involved in the political life of our nation?’ ” Kemp said, directly endorsing the purpose and goal of the coalition. “Political and economic values without moral and spiritual vision cannot sustain a great nation.”
Kemp went beyond Dole’s commitment to sign the partial-birth abortion ban to declare, “We are not just condemning partial-birth abortion; we are condemning the flagrant disregard for the sanctity to human life. … The answer is not taking innocent human life.”
Dole and Kemp took a page from Ronald Reagan’s playbook when they decided to appear here. Reagan in 1980 bucked the advice of cautious aides to go before a Dallas convention of evangelicals, where he won their undying loyalty with the statement: “Though you cannot endorse me, I endorse you.”
Dole continued to emphasize illicit drug use in America, an issue he plans to focus on this week, when he is to detail proposals for tougher juvenile sentencing, instant background checks to bar criminals from buying guns, ending early prison releases and requiring inmates to work and, if possible, to pay damages to their victims. “We are going to declare war on drugs, we are going to cut it by 50 percent, and, if necessary, we’ll work with the governors to use the National Guard to stop this junk from coming across our borders,” he told the coalition.
Both Dole and Kemp received lengthy, warm and loud receptions. In past elections, white fundamentalist and evangelical voters have given Republican candidates 75 to 80 percent of their support.
This year, however, the Dole-Kemp ticket has had trouble firming up the GOP’s religious base vote.
A Los Angeles Times poll conducted from Sept. 7 to Sept. 10 showed that Dole’s lead among white fundamentalist Christians was substantially below 2 to 1, at 55 percent to 32 percent, while GOP victory in the past has depended on a margin of between 3 to 1 and 4 to 1 among these voters.
Among active religious voters, those who attend church three or more times a month - again a constituency Republican candidates must win - Clinton held a modest advantage over Dole, 46 to 44 percent.