GOP Hopefuls Make 'Conservative' Choices

Friday, three Republican hopefuls spoke to the National Rifle Association. Earlier, at least one frontrunner skipped a debate put on by Christian conservatives. John Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, weighs in on the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Republican presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani spoke to the National Rifle Association on Friday and told them he believes that the right to bear arms is equal to the right of free speech.

Mr. RUDOLPH GIULIANI (Former Republican Mayor, New York City): After all, the second amendment is a freedom that is every bit as important as the other freedoms in the first 10 amendments.

SIMON: Candidates John McCain and Fred Thompson also spoke to the NRA and they criticized Mr. Giuliani's actions as mayor of New York when he filed a lawsuit against U.S. firearms manufacturers. Mr. Giuliani seems to be the current leader in public opinion polls among Republicans.

John Pitney is a political scientist and professor at Claremont McKenna College in California and studies Republican politics. He joins us from his office.

Professor, thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. JOHN PITNEY (Professor, Political Science, Claremont McKenna College): Thank you.

SIMON: Mayor Giuliani had very famously, I think in an interview with Charlie Rose, referred to the NRA as extremists. Now, the reception that he received at the NRA was described as polite applause but not warm. Not as large as that which Senator Thompson received.

Was there any chance that he would be endorsed by the NRA?

Dr. PITNEY: It's not very likely that he would be their first or even second choice. The key thing for Giuliani is to avoid the active opposition of the NRA. They might not like him, but he's trying in this primary season to avoid being their number one target.

SIMON: Interesting. I want to ask you about a forum earlier this week. It was called the Value Voters debate that was reportedly put together by religious conservatives. A lot of Republican frontrunners chose not to appear. Why is that?

Dr. PITNEY: Well, religious conservatives are deeply embedded throughout the Republican Party, but the organizational strength of the religious right outfits such as the Christian Coalition, for instance, that isn't nearly what it was during the 1990s.

And consequently, the candidates probably reasoned that they don't have to appeal to the religious organizations provided that they are - win a lot of support from religious voters.

SIMON: I made note of something Mayor Giuliani said when he spoke to the NRA. He said, quote, "You never get a candidate you agree with 100 percent. I'm not sure I even agree with myself 100 percent. You have to figure out who's electable who can win."

Is that why there hasn't been the backlash against him among the Republican base that people were predicting a few months ago?

Dr. PITNEY: I think that's a large portion of it. Giuliani has two great advantages. The first is the image of toughness that he showed on 9/11 and Republicans who disagree with him on other issues agree with him on national security. And that issue has much more prominence than it did during the 1990s.

The other great advantage he has is electability. Polls indicate that he's very competitive against Hillary Clinton. And a lot of Republicans are willing to accept somebody like Giuliani if he can beat Hillary Clinton.

SIMON: So what does this say about, at least, and we have to, obviously, remind ourselves nobody's cast a single vote yet. But what does this say about some of decision-making process that the Republican base is going through right now?

Dr. PITNEY: Well, there's nothing like defeat to change one's mind about ideological purity. In 2006, Republicans lost control of both chambers of Congress. Polls indicate that Democrats are in a very strong position to win the White House in 2008.

And consequently, a lot of Republican voters who would otherwise be very emphatic about ideological purity are now willing to entertain the idea of ideological flexibility.

SIMON: John Pitney, professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. Thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. PITNEY: Thank you.

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