President Ronald Reagan’s education secretary had a literature lesson Saturday for conservatives at the Values Voter Summit, explaining how American boys today pine for their absent fathers the way Telemachus of Homer’s Odyssey longed for his.
Bill Bennett could have used another allusion from the same epic to illustrate the perils facing Republican presidential candidates – in sharp relief this weekend, as the frontrunners sought to navigate between their own Scylla and Charybdis: Leaning far enough right to woo the core of the GOP electorate -- socially conservative crowds like the one gathered over the weekend in Washington -- but not so far as to scare off the independent voters who will decide the general election in November.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was knocked off message Friday when the pastor who introduced him labeled Mormonism, the faith of chief Perry rival Mitt Romney, “a cult.” Perry distanced himself from the pastor, Robert Jeffress, but only monosyllabically – and not before the flap had subsumed another badly needed momentum-turning moment.
For his visit to the Values Voter Summit, Perry got a political headache and a lousy fourth place finish in the straw poll. His fellow Texan, Rep. Ron Paul, won big, followed by pizza magnate Herman Cain and former Sen. Rick Santorum.
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins downplayed Paul’s strong showing. “I think you just do the math,” Perkins said. “Ron Paul and his campaign [are] very well organized at showing up for straw polls.”
The churn in newly registered voters on Saturday, when summit attendees could pay a reduced rate of $75 to register to vote, resulted in 600 new registrants, organizers said – many of them likely contributors to Paul’s 732 vote total. That dynamic belied Cain’s strong showing.
The results also underscored the fact that social conservatives have not settled on a standard-bearer: Of the five top finishers in last year’s poll, three – Rep. Mike Pence, the 2010 winner, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee – all have opted out of the White House race.
For Perry and Romney, Perkins said, “There’s still work to do.”
The challenges Romney faces in appealing to Christian social conservatives were only underscored here. Jeffress’ comments about Romney’s Mormonism surfaced one of them: Some conservatives see his Mormonism as outside the Christian mainstream. In a June Gallup poll, 22 percent of voters and 18 percent of Republicans said they wouldn't vote for a Mormon.
Jeffress suggested that those figures understate Romney’s problem with Christian conservatives. “Most people don’t want to admit, even evangelical Christians, that they have a problem with Mormonism,” the pastor told reporters Friday. “They think it’s bigoted to say so. But what voters say to a pollster is sometimes different than what they do in the privacy of a voting booth.”
Other conservatives say they look askance at the record he racked up as governor of Massachusetts, perhaps the nation’s most liberal state.
“My concern with Gov. Romney is not that he is a Mormon, it’s that he’s not Mormon enough. Mormons have been staunch defenders of the institution of marriage. And my main concern with Gov. Romney is that he imposed same-sex marriage on the state of Massachusetts by executive fiat,” Bryan Fischer, an official with the American Family Association, an arm of the group that hosted the Values Voters Summit, told reporters. “We have same-sex marriage in America primarily because of Mitt Romney.”
Romney took aim at Fischer, whose take-no-prisoners rhetoric against Muslims, gays and President Obama have led some liberal organizations to accuse him of hate speech, in his speech to the Values Voter Summit.
“Our values ennoble the citizen and strengthen the nation. We should remember that decency and civility are values, too,” Romney said. “One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line, I think. Poisonous language doesn’t advance our cause.”
Fischer’s charges largely distort the role Romney played during the Massachusetts gay marriage debate. As governor, Romney led a lawsuit aimed at forcing lawmakers to vote on gay marriage, pursued through the courts the authority to invoke a 1913 state law originally designed to prevent interracial marriage in order to block out-of-state gay couples from marrying in Massachusetts, and endorsed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Romney did run afoul of social conservatives by following state law and granting one-day certificates for friends of couples to officiate at the ceremonies. Aides defended the practice by saying Romney was performing the duties of his office.
Asked repeatedly if he could support Romney if the former Massachusetts governor were the nominee, Fischer said he would support whoever is matched against President Obama.
Romney’s remarks Saturday came a day after Jeffress branded Romney’s religion “a cult” shortly after introducing Perry to the same audience. Romney is “a good, moral person,” the Dallas megachurch pastor said, “but he’s not a Christian.
Jeffress's incendiary remarks threaten to blow up in Perry's face. The Texas governor has sought to strike a delicate balance between aggressively courting the evangelical vote and still appealing to a broad spectrum of voters more focused on the economy. Before declaring as a candidate, he held a boisterous, 30,000-person rally of Christians in Houston that prayed for the country's recovery, and he's met privately with many evangelical leaders.
But Perry worked hard to not be pigeon-holed as a social conservative candidate. His speech at the conference Friday, in fact, touched on all three legs of the conservative platform: foreign policy, social and fiscal issues. It was notable less for overt religious references than an attempt to make his record in Texas, and the correlating job growth there, once again central to his candidacy.
The conservatism espoused by Jeffress and Fischer can make independent voters queasy, as Bennett, now a popular talk show host, pointed out in his talk to the Values Voters, appealing for them to eschew “bigotry.” Addressing Jeffress by name, Bennett delivered the moral of the story: “You did Rick Perry no good, sir,” he said.