New Hampshire Conservative Coalition Fractured
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) _ Eight years ago, the Rev. John Fortin enthusiastically attended rallies and made posters for Republican presidential hopeful Pat Robertson. Fortin liked the evangelist’s charisma and focus on morality.
In 1996, he’s having a hard time getting excited.
``I’m not really settled,″ said Fortin, an associate pastor at the 800-member Faith Christian Center in Bedford. ``You’ve got Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes...I was leaning toward Phil Gramm, but he’s dropped out.″
Fortin is part of the estimated 10 percent to 17 percent of likely Republican New Hampshire voters who tell pollsters they are part of the religious right. These conservatives contributed heavily to Pat Buchanan’s second-place finish in Iowa last week, and his supporters hope he will get a similar boost in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.
Nationally, about a third of Americans identify themselves as religious conservatives, according to Kelly Myers, director of the University of Hampshire Survey Center. That’s roughly the same proportion of religious conservatives who voted in Iowa’s Republican caucuses, but twice the proportion expected to vote here on Tuesday, Myers says.
Analysts also say that compared to their counterparts in Iowa, New Hampshire’s religious conservatives are a less cohesive group.
``The major difference is that in Iowa, social conservatives are organized very much by the Christian Coalition,″ says Charlie Arlinghaus, state GOP executive director in New Hampshire. ``In this state, the Christian Coalition is one group of many.″
New Hampshire conservatism also tends more toward money than morals. Myers says it includes fiscal conservatism with a libertarian streak combined with opposition to restrictions on social liberties, including the right to have an abortion or own a gun.
In a poll conducted last week by the university, more than half of likely Republican primary voters said they would be turned off by candidates who try to make religion the central issue in the campaign.
In 1988, Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, placed last among five major GOP candidates in New Hampshire after a stunning second-place finish in Iowa.
Arlinghaus says presidential hopefuls have to address both morality and the economy in New Hampshire.
``There’s a growing sense that some of the cultural issues and economics are connected and you can’t divorce the two,″ he says. ``Every candidate has to tie his platform together and no candidate can campaign on one issue.″
Fortin says his own religious values are as strong as they were in 1988. But he says he has become disillusioned by politics and has not been inspired by any of the GOP candidates.
Many of his parishioners apparently are in the same boat. The congregation includes supporters of Buchanan, Keyes, Lamar Alexander and Bob Dole.
``People have their own mind,″ Fortin says.
Lyman Threet, a Christian conservative from Laconia, says he may vote for Keyes because of his moral convictions and sincerity.
But, says Threet, ``I’ve been for Buchanan on and off, too.″
``We’re trying to tell people they need to vote their convictions and not worry about throwing away their vote,″ says Keyes campaign coordinator John LaMontagne of Barrington.
Ken Coleman, who has opposed the religious right as a member of the Merrimack School Board, warns against underestimating the movement politically.
``I don’t think the majority of New Hampshire supports the agenda of the religious right, but I think like in Iowa, if the majority gets disgusted and doesn’t turn out, that bloc will show here,″ says Coleman, who has fought anti-homosexual policies in Merrimack schools.
``Voter apathy is what makes the religious right seem more powerful.″