Religious Right Lining up Behind Fred Thompson

Despite Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson’s well-publicized remarks a few months back questioning Fred Thompson’s Christian credibility, and despite his anemic fundaising efforts — in its first month his campaign raised only $3 million instead of a hoped for $5 million — several religious right leaders appear to be gearing up to give the former Republican senator from Tennessee and television actor two thumbs up when he officially enters the GOP race for the presidency; expected to happen sometime shortly after Labor Day.

According to the Boston Globe’s Scott Helman, longtime social conservatives including Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate who now leads American Values, a conservative public policy organization, and Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, Washington, D.C.’s most powerful conservative Christian lobbying group, are clearly dissatisfied with the current field and seem willing to put any differences they might have with Thompson aside and embrace his candidacy.

“There’s a consensus developing around him that’s pretty clear and pretty profound,” John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, an Orlando-based conservative group told the Globe. “I’ve never seen anything like it in 25 years in politics.”

“It’s almost as if the man and the moment met,” said Richard Land, who speaks for more than 16 million people as head of public policy for the nation’s Southern Baptists. The Globe reported that while Land has said “he will not endorse a candidate in the primary … his boosterish comments about Thompson — like those of other conservative leaders — leave little doubt about his excitement about the former senator. He said support for Thompson was spreading ‘almost like a prairie fire’ and predicted that some conservative leaders would endorse the 64-year-old actor and lawyer in coming weeks.”

In a piece posted June 20 at Real Clear Politics, David Domke, associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, reported that, “In June, Southern Baptist executive committee president Morris Chapman, who said he hasn’t settled on a candidate yet, nonetheless added: ‘Another Southern Baptist called Fred Thompson the Ronald Reagan of the South, and I think he has some of that appeal. He is a magnetic personality. He seems to articulate his opinions clearly. He seems to be unflappable.'”

Domke pointed out that “Every Republican presidential candidate over the past two decades has invoked the legacy of Reagan — characterized by optimism, love of nation, geniality, and a television-friendly persona. But Thompson is the first GOP candidate to be consistently talked about as Reaganesque. The SBC’s Land, in fact, has been the leading proponent of this comparison.”

The mini-flap between Dobson and the Thompson camp came about earlier this year when Dobson told US News & World Report’s Dan Gilgoff, “I don’t think he’s a Christian; at least that’s my impression.” A Focus on the Family spokesman told the magazine that Dobson meant he has “never known Thompson to be a committed Christian — someone who talks openly about his faith.”

In a story appearing in the July 23 issue of US News, Gilgoff, author of the recently published book The Jesus Machine, which focuses on Dobson’s rise to power, reported that “Dobson and Thompson have since talked, with Dobson rumored to be reassessing Thompson.”

Support for Thompson appears to be equally based on social conservatives’ disdain for the top tier candidates — former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and for Arizona Senator John McCain — as well as their belief that the former D.C. lobbyist/lawyer will make an more acceptable standard bearer for the party.

“He’s got a real good chance to emerge as the conservative alternative to Giuliani,” Bauer said. As for Romney, Bauer pointed out that “They’ll battle it out, but if I had to characterize it right now, I would say that the momentum here has moved to Thompson, at least among the social-issues conservatives.”

“I think there is a genuine comfortable feeling that there may be a candidate out there that everyone can get behind,” said Phil Burress, who leads the Ohio-based Citizens for Community Values. “He looks like he’s the first candidate that’s come along that one, can raise money; two, that’s electable, and three, we’re pretty comfortable with … on most of the issues today.”

In his July 23 report, US News’ Gilgoff also pointed out that “prominent social conservative Paul Weyrich … [had] met recently with Thompson and evangelical activists, [and] said the former senator ‘was in agreement with us on almost everything.'” However, in a recent column posted at Townhall.com, Weyrich predicted that regardless of who the GOP’s candidate was, he would lose to Hillary Clinton.

Gilgoff also pointed out that Thompson had “recently hired Bill Wichterman, who served as conservative outreach director for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Joseph Cella, president of a conservative Catholic group called Fidelis, to lead” his campaign efforts. The recent hires brought Thompson’s staff to nearly 30, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza recently reported, including a pollster (John McLaughlin), a direct mail firm (HSP Direct), and an e-campaign team (Blaise Hazelwood and Ken Smith).

John Gizzi, political editor of the conservative weekly Human Events, recently reported that a source told him that Cella “will play the same role that Tim Goeglein plays in the [Bush] White House, as a liaison to conservative organizations.”

In late May, Talk2Action’s Frank Cocozzelli, who has been steadfastly monitoring and writing about the Catholic right, wrote that Fidelis (a 501(c)(4) political advocacy group) “has been tag-teaming with Bill Donohue’s Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (website) to criticize Rudy Giuliani’s position on abortion.” Cella lashed out at Giuliani, saying that he “share[d] the exact same position on abortion as fellow Catholic John Kerry. As more people of faith who are pro-life begin to realize this, they will reject Giuliani’s candidacy.”

On its website, Fidelis describes itself as “a Catholic-based organization working with people of faith across the country to defend and promote the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and the right to religious liberty by electing pro-life, pro-family and pro-religious liberty candidates, supporting the confirmation of judges, and promoting and defending laws faithful to the Constitution of the United States.”

Cocozzelli also reported that on May 16 , the organization “announced that it was organizing anti-Giuliani protests during the GOP Presidential Debates then being held in Columbia, South Carolina. Cella also announced [that] Fidelis America PAC, the political action arm of Fidelis, will distribute flyers and stickers prior to tonight’s debate. The stickers read: “Protect the Pro-Life Platform. Defeat Rudy Giuliani.”‘

“At the bottom of both of the Giuliani-targeted Fidelis press releases is a statement very much worth noting,” writes Cocozzelli: “Paid for by Fidelis America PAC_P.O. Box 277 Chelsea, MI 48118_Joseph J. Cella, Treasurer Not Authorized by Any Candidate or Committee.” In the course of his research, Cocozzelli found that the releases appeared to be “designed to influence the 2008 presidential election [and] are posted on what appears to be the joint web site for several related organizations,” Fidelis, Fidelis America — “a hard money PAC,” Fidelis Media Fund — a 527 “soft money” entity, and Fidelis Center for Law and Policy — a 501(c)(3).

The intermingling of these entities caught Cocozzelli’s eye: “While it is not clear is which legal entity actually controls the web site, there is a potential issue here in the possible commingling of donations since the site serves as the portal for the (c)(4) as well as the 527 political action committee. It is an unusual, hazy situation that might pique the interest of the IRS as well as the Federal Election Commission.”

Dan Gilgoff reported that Thompson’s “aides are arranging more meetings between Thompson and conservative Christian leaders and have launched a rapid-response operation to fend off attacks on Thompson’s conservative credentials,” Dan Gilgoff reported.

Gilgoff also noted that Thompson has been touting his campaign endorsements from the National Right to Life Committee. “It didn’t look like he was saying what a group of Christian consultants told him to say,” says Harry Jackson, senior pastor of the 2,000 member Hope Christian Church in College Park, Maryland who also heads a group called the High-Impact Leadership Coalition (website), who met recently with Thompson. “He seemed to be saying, ‘I’m one of you.'”

“There’s a deliberate attempt by evangelical leaders to come to consensus,” says Jackson. David Barton, an evangelical activist who spearheaded pastor outreach for the Republican National Committee in 2004, told Gilgoff that “the leaders I talk to are all really interested in Thompson, but they’re waiting to pull the trigger [on endorsements] until later this year.”

I asked longtime investigative reporter Mike Reynolds why Thompson appeared to be doing so well with the religious right. “Thompson has assiduously worked the leadership — evangelical and traditionalist Catholic — behind the scenes for some time,” said Reynolds, author of a book on politics, money and the religious right to be published by St. Martins Press in 2008. “Taking his cues from Reagan in 1980 and Rove/Bush in 1998, Thompson has laid the requisite groundwork and cultivated a level of trust among this base that no other viable GOP Presidential candidate can match, well ahead of his speech at the Council for National Policy (CNP) in May that was followed by one-on-one meetings with Arlington Group heavies. Two weeks after that CNP speech, Paul Weyrich ran up the flag in a commentary titled “The Man for A Desperate Hour: Fred Thompson” in which he compared Thompson to Reagan. It’s a done deal.”

Does Thompson run the risk of veering too far to the right in his search for support? Ironically, its Gary Bauer who puts his finger on a problem that could develop should Thompson become the GOP nominee: “Thompson’s very good on the defense of normal marriage and free expression of religion. Frankly, he might have an easier time … if he’s not easily labeled as ‘religious right.'”

Thompson may not yet be an officially declared candidate, but he does have a spin/rapid response team in place. His early responders were pressed into duty recently after the Los Angeles Times reported on July 7 that the Senator had “accepted an assignment from a family-planning group [National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association] to lobby the first Bush White House to ease a controversial abortion restriction, according to a 1991 document and several people familiar with the matter.” The gag rule that Thompson wanted eased “barred abortion counseling at clinics that received federal money.”

Springing into action, Thompson spinner Mark Corallo maintained that Thompson “did not lobby for this group, period.” In a telephone interview with the Times, Corallo added: “There’s no documents to prove it, there’s no billing records, and Thompson says he has no recollection of it, says it didn’t happen.”

However, Judith DeSarno, president of the organization in 1991, “said Thompson lobbied for the group for several months,” the newspaper reported. “Minutes from the board’s meeting of Sept. 14, 1991 — a copy of which DeSarno gave to the Times — say: ‘Judy [DeSarno] reported that the association had hired Fred Thompson Esq. as counsel to aid us in discussions with the administration” on the abortion counseling rule.'”

In mid-July, LifeNews.com editor Steven Ertelt wrote that a number of pro-life leaders, including Gary Bauer, Tony Perkins, and Richard Land, raised doubts about the truth of the Times story because of that newspaper’s longtime support for abortion rights. Karen Cross, of the National Right to Life Committee, told LifeNews.com that “It appears that there is an attempt to create confusion regarding former Senator Fred Thompson’s pro-life position.”

However, a Time magazine report on July 25 confirmed that “Records … [had] turned up showing that Thompson had billed the group for nearly 20 hours of work in the early 1990s, an awkward revelation for a candidate positioning himself as a straight shooter and true conservative.”

A National Review editorial appeared to best sum up the situation, insisting that it should be treated “as a regrettable bit of ancient history.”

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column, "Conservative Watch," documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Read other articles by Bill, or visit Bill's website.

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  1. Albert Cote said on August 10th, 2007 at 11:43am #

    In the future I would hopr that Thompson would be refered to as “The Washington Lobbiest/lawyer formerly a US Senator and Hollywood actor.

  2. Michael Kenny said on August 10th, 2007 at 12:54pm #

    I remember thinking back in 2004 that America knew who it wanted as President: Josiah Bartlet. The problem was, he doesn’t exist! I have a feeling the same thing is happening with Fred Thompson. People don’t want him, they want Arthur Branch!