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Christian GOP on Giuliani: Judge not, lest we lose in ’08

Times Staff Writer

A highway sign outside this small town calls it “a touch of Holland.” A few windmills later, Bruxvoort’s furniture store and Vander Ploeg’s bakery attest to Pella’s tight bonds with the Netherlands.

But if Pella, abuzz in tulip festival preparations, stands out with its colorful display of Dutch heritage, its politics are typical of many towns in rural Iowa: Conservative Christian Republicans hold sway.

So it comes as little surprise that appliance repairman Bernie Veenstra, 48, and many other evangelical Christians here cast a wary eye on Republican presidential hopeful Rudolph W. Giuliani, the combative former New York City mayor with liberal views on abortion and gay rights.

“He’s got that New York mentality -- that’s why I don’t like him,” Veenstra said. “Around here, it’s family, pro-life.”

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But in conversations with Republicans here in the first state to vote in the 2008 presidential race, the more striking thing is how evangelicals Carolyn Vande Voort, Joy Milby and Mike Brown see Giuliani: They disagree with him on social issues, but lean toward him anyway.

And therein lies a startling aspect of Giuliani’s candidacy: Nationwide, he is the No. 1 choice of white conservative Christians for the Republican nomination. A Times poll this month found 26% of them favor Giuliani -- more than double the portion supporting either of his top rivals, John McCain or Mitt Romney.

Giuliani’s improbable appeal to these culturally conservative voters suggests that they may pose less of a threat to his quest for the nomination than widely assumed. His lead among those voters is partly circumstance; no other Republican has consolidated their support.

But it also demonstrates the potency of his tough-on-terrorism message among conservatives who prize strong leadership on national security.

“You want someone who’s demonstrated character,” said Mike Brown, a Pella city employee walking past tulip beds in the town square, on his way to lunch at In’tveld’s diner.

Brown, 56, thinks Giuliani is wrong on abortion, but he wants a president who will cope with crisis the way the mayor responded to the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001. “Just being able to remain calm, dispatch the people, handle the situation -- those are things I really find favorable,” Brown said.

Some evangelicals are also willing to ignore Giuliani’s liberal social views because they sense that he gives Republicans their best shot at holding the White House in an otherwise dismal election climate for the party.

“We have some differences, but he’s electable,” said Milby, 34, who was picking up her children at the Pella Christian Grade School one recent afternoon.

Still, in a measure of conservative dissatisfaction with Giuliani and his primary opponents, the Times survey found that 22% of white conservative Christian Republicans preferred former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee for the party nomination. The “Law and Order” television actor, a social conservative, has not said whether he will run, but Milby, for one, would gladly switch to Thompson if he does.

“He has the whole package -- conservative -- compared to Giuliani,” she said.

For Giuliani, the prospect of another Republican rallying the conservative Christian vote poses one of the biggest challenges to his quest for the nomination, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina, another conservative state with an early presidential contest.

“Anybody who suggests that Rudy is going to be able to skate by his support of abortion on demand, support of gay rights, support of gun control ... just doesn’t understand Republican primary politics,” said GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio. “Those are some very, very substantial hurdles.”

To overcome them, Giuliani has been moving to the right. Last week, he praised the U.S. Supreme Court for upholding a ban on a controversial abortion method, breaking with his 1997 vow to oppose any such ban. At an Alabama campaign stop earlier this month, he said it should be left to states to decide whether to display the Confederate flag. Once an advocate of national gun control, Giuliani now says restrictions on firearms should also be left to states.

Yet in recent conversations about Giuliani in Iowa, Republican evangelical Christians were quick to criticize his stands on abortion and gay rights, along with his tumultuous marital history.

“I would not vote for Rudy, because he’s been married and divorced twice,” said Norman Nieuwsma, 73, a retired postal clerk who was buying a gold coin honoring the town’s 2007 tulip queen. “It’s a Christian issue. When you take the oath -- for better or worse, until death do us part -- that’s what it means.”

Parishioners at a Des Moines church made similar remarks after a recent Sunday morning service. More than 1,000 congregants gather each week at the nondenominational First Federated Church, where a choir and rock band perform praise songs and the crowd sings along, following the words on a jumbo TV screen.

Retired teacher Joe Best, who gathered with more than two dozen fellow congregants in a church assembly room after the service to share their thoughts on the presidential race, bemoaned Giuliani’s rough transition from his second wife to his third. The mayor was “shacking up with somebody else” while married, said Best, 71. “That is morally repugnant to me.”

One by one, the parishioners -- all of whom said they planned to vote in Iowa’s Republican presidential caucuses -- piled on Giuliani for supporting legal abortion.

Gary Baugher, 65, a retired mobile-home park owner, said he would “hold my nose and vote for him” in a general election, but not in the caucuses. He was particularly offended by Giuliani’s recent statement that he still supports public funding of abortions for women who cannot afford them. “That’s like pushing that in the face of the people who are pro-life,” Baugher said.

But several in the group described their preferred, more-conservative candidates, such as former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, as unlikely to build enough support to win the nomination.

Retired teacher Lorraine Long, 74, said she was not “a huge Giuliani fan” and strongly disagreed with him on abortion. But she still might support him because of what she sees as his strength on national security.

“If we’re annihilated, we can’t fight abortion and the liberals,” she said.

That sentiment is part of a wider concern among many evangelicals that America is locked “in a massive, titanic ideological struggle with radical Islam,” said Dennis J. Goldford, professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines. “Religious conservatives have come to see radical Islam as the dominant issue of the age, to the point that for some of them -- not all -- this eclipses things like abortion, taxes and homosexuality,” he said.

As the election nears, rivals could try to undercut Giuliani with mail and television ads denouncing his social views. But for now, Vande Voort, 60, a secretary at the Pella airport who described herself as a devout Christian, is willing to look beyond his views on abortion and other social issues.

“I think he’s a good leader,” she said. “We need someone who is a good leader.”

michael.finnegan@latimes.com


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