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Surprises on the right

Like war, presidential campaigns always will surprise you. Keep that in mind as you try to figure out Pat Robertson's surprising endorsement of Rudy Giuliani's presidential bid.

Robertson is a Virginia-based televangelist tycoon, icon of the religious right and a 1988 presidential candidate. He rails against abortion and gay marriage. Yet he's endorsing a former New York mayor who favors a woman's right to choose, defends gun control laws and once shared a Manhattan apartment for a time with two gay friends, when marital difficulties forced him out of the mayoral mansion. Hey, it's hard to find affordable housing in New York.

So why is Robertson compromising his usual tut-tut moral absolutism to endorse Giuliani for the White House? The fight against Islamic fascism is of greater importance, says the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network. That view is shared by many other social conservatives, who have given Giuliani more support in places like South Carolina than a New York moderate might expect to get.

Whatever his agenda may be, Robertson's endorsement and Giuliani's eagerness to accept it say a lot about the nature of Campaign 2008: With the unifying force of President Bush in eclipse, the religious right is up for grabs, and all of the Republican candidates, except perhaps the libertarian maverick Texas Rep. Ron Paul, appear eager to grab it.

The first rule of politics is: Thou shalt not divide thy base. Of the frontrunners Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, none have won the strong support Bush captured in the 2000 campaign, when he named Jesus Christ as his "favorite political philosopher" during a debate.

The quest for that support this year has kicked off an endorsement chase. Romney surged ahead with two big conservative names: Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and Bob Jones III, chancellor of a famous Christian university. McCain famously criticized Robertson and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell in his 2000 campaign, but made his peace with Falwell before the Christian Coalition founder died this year. McCain is now endorsed by fellow Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a leading conservative voice who dropped out of the presidential race.

During the same week, Thompson hurt himself on his right political flank when he made this seemingly sensible observation on abortion rights: "I do not think it is a wise thing to criminalize young girls and perhaps their parents as aiders and abettors." Nor should we have a federal law, he said, that "would take young, young girls . . . and say, basically, we're going to put them in jail." The keen ears of antiabortion media and activists quickly detected a tune Thompson probably did not want them to hear, the political language of their ideological foes in the pro-choice movement (the National Right to Life Committee later endorsed him anyway).

But the biggest GOP surprise may be coming around on the outside like an energized racehorse from Bill Clinton's hometown of Hope, Ark. Oddly, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has not attracted a lot of big-name endorsements from clergy, even though he's a man of the cloth.

The ordained Southern Baptist minister is a riveting speaker with an engaging personality. He seems to have all the right ideological credentials, too. He wants a federal ban on abortion, supports the troop surge in Iraq, and supports concealed-weapons permits. That's not my agenda, but it's not one that should hurt him with his fellow conservatives.

Nevertheless, the former governor of one of the America's poorest states also says that government's mission should include helping people. What a concept. Maybe Iowans will surprise us by giving a boost to a candidate who doesn't view the phrase "compassionate conservative" as a contradiction.

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