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Conservatives Eye ’08 Interviews

In an effort to maximize its political capital in the 2008 presidential contest, a conglomeration of socially conservative organizations is considering establishing a formal interview process to discern candidates’ positions on policy issues important to their members.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the idea is under discussion by several socially conservative leaders and he suggested up to 18 organizations would be involved in the effort.

“We are interested in who the candidates would be and where they stand on the issues so that we can educate our constituencies on their positions,” Perkins said at a Wednesday breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

Even though many of these groups are not allowed to formally endorse candidates because of their not-for-profit tax status, the interviews could play an influential role in the selection of the Republican presidential nominee. Social conservatives are an important voting bloc in the GOP primary and it is expected that most — if not all — of the Republican candidates will seek this community’s support.

“I think there is a legitimate concern that the candidates who want the votes of cultural conservatives get very specific about what it is they believe and what it is they are willing to do legislatively on a host of issues from protecting marriage to sanctity of life,” said Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate who now serves as the president of American Values.

But the idea of having culturally conservative organizations vet candidates is being met with concern by some Republicans.

“I think it is a political mistake when interest groups make candidates jump through hoops,” said Scott Reed, who managed then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole’s (R-Kan.) presidential campaign in 1996. “There are other ways to discuss important issues and set political priorities than going through a murder board.”

But Don Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association, said the face-to-face interview process would ensure that a candidate could not nuance an answer to a controversial question. In many cases, a candidate’s campaign will respond in writing when a group sends them a questionnaire seeking their positions on a number of issues.

Wildmon said under the scenario being discussed, a candidate would be forced to answer the question directly, which can then be compared to previous statements.

“I think it is the most logical thing to do,” Wildmon said.

John Brabender, a GOP media consultant, said he was not surprised cultural conservative are looking into a formal interview process even though the presidential election is more than three years off.

“I think it is a good idea for groups to be very sure before they endorse and support somebody,” said Brabender, Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) media consultant. Santorum is one of several Senators mentioned as a potential Republican presidential nominee.

No less than 11 Senators — five Democrats and six Republicans — are said to be seriously weighing White House bids and an FRC spokesman noted that all candidates would be invited to participate.

While not formally endorsing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Perkins suggested Wednesday that the Tennessee Republican is looked favorably on by people who describe themselves as cultural conservatives.

“A lot of people have been impressed with Bill Frist and his leadership,” Perkins said. “He has been one of the most vocal supporters of issues we care about, like pushing the marriage amendment. He was one of the first ones to come to the Senate floor, calling for that. He’s been staying the course on judges. Now, some criticize him, saying he’s not moving fast enough. But I think he’s moving very methodically, with precision.”

Perkins also mentioned Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) as a candidate social conservatives might be able to support, but said it was too early to judge whether Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) would be embraced by socially conservative voters if he decides to run for president.

“I like George, he has a very good personality,” Perkins said. “He’s a very enthusiastic and youthful kind of campaigner. I think that’s good. I have not seen him out front providing a lot of leadership on a number of core issues that conservatives care about, but then you know that just might because he is a little newer to the process.”

One potential GOP candidate who is unlikely to be interviewed is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has clashed with social conservatives despite his anti-abortion rights stance. McCain angered social conservatives recently for helping to broker the deal that blocked Frist from trying to eliminate the judicial filibuster.

Frist planned to change the Senate rules to eliminate the judicial filibuster in response to Democrat’s refusal to allow up-or-down votes on all of President Bush’s more controversial nominees. But a bipartisan compromise forged by seven Republicans and seven Democrats in McCain’s office paved the way for votes on several of these nominees in exchange for keeping the judicial filibuster intact.

“I absolutely do not see him getting any support from social conservatives,” Perkins said of McCain. As for why, Perkins suggested the Arizona Senator is unpredictable.

“One of the things you want in a leader, one of the key elements is you know where they are going,” he said. “You know what they stand for, their core values.”

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