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Evangelical eggshells

Giuliani wins over Regent audience by avoiding the "A" word

Evangelical eggshells

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va.- In the well-appointed lobby of the Founders Inn on the campus of Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., gold-framed oil portraits of America's first presidents line the walls. In a nearby ballroom, Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani is busy trying to convince an audience of some 650 people that he should be next in line.

For Giuliani, this is a bellwether audience. The crowd assembled at the Christian school founded by televangelist Pat Robertson is full of the evangelicals and social conservatives who have produced the biggest question mark for Giuliani's campaign: Can a Republican candidate who supports legalized abortion and civil unions for homosexuals win over a critical voting bloc that ardently opposes both?

A handful of evangelical leaders unequivocally say no: Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson wrote in a May editorial: "I cannot, and will not, vote for Rudy Giuliani in 2008. It is an irrevocable decision." Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said recently of Giuliani: "I wouldn't even consider voting for him." Family Research Council president Tony Perkins compared Giuliani to the Potomac River: appealing from a distance but polluted upon a closer look.

If the dismal assessments from these influential evangelicals worry Giuliani, he doesn't show it. Instead, the candidate confidently strides into the ballroom here at Regent, slapping Robertson's back and smiling at the socially conservative crowd. Giuliani has plenty to smile about on this summer afternoon: The room is sold out, and Robertson has introduced him as "a dear friend, and a great leader."

Giuliani reciprocates by praising Regent University and Robertson's "many, many accomplishments." Then comes a 30-minute speech that encapsulates Giuliani's emerging strategy for dealing with evangelicals: maximize distress over terrorism and minimize dismay over abortion. Judging by the reception from this audience, it's a strategy that could work.

As his speech unfolds, Giuliani makes a compelling case for maximizing concerns over national security. In a chilling story about the morning of 9/11, the former mayor of New York City reminds the crowd that he confronted the worst terrorist attack in the nation's history. He recalls standing at the bottom of the north tower of the World Trade Center shortly after the attack, watching a man jump from one of the top floors. "I realized that this was much worse than anything we had seen before," he says.

Giuliani rehearses the city's rapid response to the unprecedented disaster: organizing a rescue and recovery effort, evacuating Lower Manhattan, closing tunnels into the city, dispatching security to other potential targets, bolstering hospitals with extra medical personnel, and establishing a center for families to access information about victims.

The former mayor says he pieced together the response from plans the city formulated for other disasters: "If you prepare for everything you can think of, you'll be prepared for the unthinkable."

Preparing for the unthinkable is Giuliani's mantra in his presidential campaign. He argues that America must stay on the offensive in what he calls "the terrorists' war on us." He assails Democrats for being "in denial" about what Giuliani says is obvious: "Islamic terrorists are trying to kill us. They have succeeded in doing it, and they plan on doing it again."

It's a sobering and persuasive message that Giuliani dwells on for nearly his entire speech. And though he briefly mentions other areas like illegal immigration, government accountability, and energy independence, he squarely avoids the topic of abortion. Instead, he only alludes to his divisions with evangelicals with his now-standard line: "I don't expect you to agree with me on everything."

Giuliani says that the presidential race is "not about one issue-it's about many issues," but he quickly adds that the dominant issue is terrorism. (When it comes to terrorism, Giuliani qualifies his statements about Islamic extremists by saying that the majority of Muslims are good people. And in a nod to his religious audience that ends up highlighting instead of obscuring his differences with evangelicals, Giuliani asserts that Muslims "worship the same God we worship.")

Giuliani's avoidance of social issues doesn't seem to bother this crowd. During a brief question-and-answer session following the speech, no one mentions abortion. Instead, audience members ask questions about Iraq, Iran, and illegal immigration that allow Giuliani to rehash his tough talk on protecting America.

The questions also allow Giuliani to come back to another favorite emphasis of the day: his affinity for President Ronald Reagan. He mentions Reagan at least four times during his appearance and calls him "the best president of the last 40 or 50 years." Giuliani says he admired Reagan's stand against communism and his belief that "America does better when it relies more on people than government."

Those conservative themes resonate with this audience, and Giuliani exits the stage to enthusiastic applause and a standing ovation. (The New York Sun noted the significance of Giuliani's success at Regent with the next-day headline: "Giuliani Gets a Standing Ovation at a Christian College.")

Shortly after his speech, Giuliani faces a much tougher crowd: an eager press corps assembled next door. The first question comes fast: Why did you make a conscious decision to avoid mentioning abortion in your speech? Giuliani's reply: "It wasn't a conscious decision. It was a decision to make a speech on leadership." He says he's given a similar speech many times and "I've never mentioned abortion before, so it would actually have been a conscious decision to go out of my way to mention it."

Next question: Will your experience as New York City's mayor during 9/11 be enough to conquer the reservations of social conservatives? Giuliani's reply: "Nope." He says they will also have to trust his experience as a U.S. attorney and associate attorney general during Reagan's administration.

Outside in the bustling foyer, Charles Dunn seems satisfied with those answers. Dunn, the dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent, says he was impressed with Giuliani's performance at the school. "I think he really showcased his appeal to social conservatives," Dunn told WORLD.

Dunn acknowledges evangelical resistance to Giuliani but says his candidacy pits "purists" against "pragmatists." Purists like James Dobson and Richard Land dismiss Giuliani based on a couple of issues, Dunn says, but pragmatists like Pat Robertson believe that Giuliani is preferable to Democratic candidates: "Half a loaf is better than no loaf."

Dunn speculates that Giuliani could overcome the abortion issue by continuing to express his abhorrence of the procedure. (Giuliani has said he "hates abortion," though he supports legal access to it.) Dunn also says Giuliani could promise to appoint conservative judges and choose a pro-life running mate.

In the meantime, Dunn says Giuliani should continue to emphasize the paramount importance of national security, an issue that most Republicans can agree on. Giuliani's message, he says, is that "terrorism is a direct threat to all of us. And as important as those other issues are, they don't directly affect all of us."

If Giuliani presses that message, he'll part ways with his presidential role model, the staunchly pro-life Reagan. While president in 1983, Reagan wrote in an unsolicited editorial for The Human Life Review: "Abortion concerns not just the unborn child, it concerns every one of us."

President Reagan wrote that his administration was committed to preserving America's freedom. But he added: "There is no cause more important for preserving that freedom than affirming the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.