After watching a round of CNN over lunch, I think we can now proclaim this the political story of the day. You know that this development is causing a round of celebrations in the Hillary Clinton headquarters, since third-party bids are what opens the door for candidates with consistent high, high negative numbers in polls. This was on The New York Times' politics blog last night and then it turned into a full-blown David D. Kirkpatrick story with the headline "Giuliani Inspires Threat of a Third-Party Run."
As has happened in the past, this is a case of Dr. James Dobson trying to sound a warning to GOP leadership that the current candidate offerings are just not cutting the mustard. This story is, of course, an update on the ongoing story of whether Sen. Fred Thompson is "Christian enough" to get the nod of key conservatives in pews.
Thus, we read:
The threat emerged from a group that broke away for separate discussions at a meeting Saturday in Salt Lake City of the Council for National Policy, a secretive conservative networking group. Participants said the smaller group included James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family, who is perhaps its most influential member; Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council; Richard A. Viguerie, the direct-mail pioneer; and dozens of other politically oriented conservative Christians.
Almost everyone present at the smaller group's meeting expressed support for a written resolution stating that "if the Republican Party nominates a pro-abortion candidate we will consider running a third-party candidate," participants said.
The participants said that the group chose the qualified term "consider" because it had not yet identified an alternative candidate, but that it was largely united in its plans to bolt the party if Mr. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, became the nominee. The participants spoke on condition of anonymity because the Council for National Policy meeting and the smaller meeting were secret, but they said members of the smaller group intended to publicize the resolution.
As the story stresses, there really isn't a candidate who creates unity among the values-voter set. By the way, let me note that the Times did a pretty good job of separating its references to "political conservatives" from the references to "voters from evangelical churches" or language of that type. This is probably all that reporters can do to keep from turning "evangelical" into a doctrine-free political term, and it's the kind of nuance you expect from a veteran on this beat, such as Kirkpatrick.
Meanwhile, over at the Los Angeles Times, reporter Michael Finnegan has a broader version of essentially the same story, with the "secret" meeting playing a secondary role in the drama.
But this story goes one step further, pointing to the next level of competition. Perhaps the only thing that could unite the religious right is the prospect of President Clinton, Mach II.
"Perhaps more than ever, electability is part of the thing that social conservatives are weighing, because the prospect of Hillary Clinton is so disturbing to them," said Gary Bauer, a conservative activist who ran for president in 2000. "They're looking for both the candidate who is closest to their views but also the candidate that they credibly think can win."
Giuliani argues that he fits that bill, even as Bauer and others continue scouting for someone else. For now, some key evangelical leaders say religious conservatives must soon join forces to back Romney, Thompson or another candidate -- whatever his flaws -- to stop Giuliani.
So what is the next religious wrinkle? Who will start, perhaps, to court Gov. Mike Huckabee, to see if this talented fellow will take the No. 2 slot? Would a Giuliani-Huckabee ticket affect a kingmaker like Dobson?
Stay tuned. It's way past time for a new plot line in this old, old story.