Just three weeks after he dropped his bid for the White House, Sam Brownback endorsed John McCain for the GOP presidential nomination today—a move that could prove pivotal in the Arizona senator's bid to reclaim momentum in the campaign.
The move comes on the heels of two other prominent endorsements in the race by social conservatives this week. On Tuesday, Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich threw his support behind Mitt Romney. And this morning Rudy Giuliani announced that he had won the support of televangelist Pat Robertson, a huge get for the mayor, who has struggled to win support among social conservatives.
While each endorsement is no doubt a plus to the candidate who won it, it's clear that the values-voter movement, which was unified behind George W. Bush, is now splintering in spite of months of efforts to agree on one GOP candidate heading into 2008. And with the social conservative voting bloc up for grabs, the fight for endorsements is getting fiercer—particularly as rank-and-file religious-right voters struggle to find their perfect candidate in a field where no one is perfect on their key issues.
The speed of the McCain endorsement was surprising. Late last week Brownback told NEWSWEEK that he was not yet close to endorsing anyone and wanted to weigh his options for a bit longer. "I need some time to get my head clear," he said. He had already met with Rudy Giuliani, a meeting that stoked speculation that he might endorse the former New York City mayor in spite of Giuliani's moderate views on abortion. Brownback's staff had told former campaign supporters in Iowa and South Carolina that they'd be surprised to see him endorse anyone before Thanksgiving—in spite of the tremendous lobbying efforts coming from Brownback's former GOP rivals.
Talking to NEWSWEEK, Brownback seemed mystified at the jockeying for his endorsement. Considered a long shot for the nomination almost from the very beginning, the Kansas senator never garnered more than single digits in national polls, though his operation in Iowa was taken seriously. But a poor showing at the Ames Straw Poll in August and fund-raising trouble ended his bid. "They seem to put a lot of weight on what I'm going to do," Brownback told NEWSWEEK. "I don't know if it's that they see [my endorsement] as worth a lot—or that it would be costly to them if someone else gets it."
Brownback's choice of McCain was less surprising than the timing. The two men are personal friends, thanks to their time serving together in the Senate. On the trail McCain has praised Brownback's stance on Iraq and his outspokenness on issues like poverty and the genocide in Darfur. Brownback, in turn, shares McCain's compassionate view on immigration. When Brownback quit the race, two of his top campaign aides in Iowa joined the McCain campaign—prompting the Arizona senator to pour some additional resources into the state, in spite of the fact that he's almost last in polling there and has almost no money compared to his rivals.
Before he dropped out of the race, Brownback had been critical of Giuliani's abortion views and had questioned Romney's positions in light of his past moderate beliefs on abortion and other social issues. Just a month ago Brownback said he didn't believe a pro-choice candidate could win the nomination. Yet a week after he quit the race Brownback met with Giuliani—a meeting that worried many of his supporters, who strongly oppose Giuliani's bid. Media reports quoted unnamed Brownback aides who explained that the senator could overlook Giuliani's moderate views on social issues because of his stance on terrorism and security—and because he was winning.
Asked last week about his meeting with the former mayor, Brownback chuckled and replied, "The Giuliani campaign played that very well." At the same time he did appear to lay the groundwork for a possible endorsement of Giuliani. While he admitted that he would take past positions into account ("Consistency is important," he told NEWSWEEK), Brownback seemed to put more emphasis on what Giuliani was saying today. "I don't think you can describe the mayor's policy positions today as being pro-choice. He certainly didn't. He comes at the [issue of life] as a strict constructionist, which is what I believe," Brownback said. "What he says about the funding for abortions, the Hyde amendment … he takes pro-life positions." Their only major disagreement on the issue, Brownback said, was on federal funding for stem cell research, which both Giuliani and McCain support and Brownback opposes.
Brownback's apparently tolerant views on Giuliani were clearly not shared by top supporters, to whom Giuliani's views are anathema. "It would take a lot of convincing by Sam Brownback pointing out how a Giuliani presidency would not set back social conservatives," said Jim Corbett, who was Brownback's South Carolina state director. Brownback openly admitted that he worried about upsetting the people who had backed his campaign. Yet he said a major factor in determining who he would support would be who could beat a Democrat in the general election. He said the "central fight for the presidency" is over who will have the power to appoint the next Supreme Court justices. All of the GOP candidates, he said, were on the side of appointing strict constructionists who might overturn Roe v. Wade, while the Democrats, he said, oppose those efforts. "I am concerned about alienating people, but I'm more concerned about life and that we win in this fight for life," he told NEWSWEEK. At the same time, he noted, "I don't know how you move people to our side if you don't talk to them."
What will Brownback's endorsement mean for McCain? It's hard to say. Brownback's biggest support was in Iowa, where he was widely respected by many social conservatives. But by itself it's no guarantee that those folks will warm to McCain, who has been criticized over his opposition to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. (Like Fred Thompson, McCain has said the issue should be left up to the states.) And the Weyrich-Romney and Robertson-Giuliani endorsements might blunt some of the payoff of the Brownback announcement, keeping alive Giuliani's and Romney's hopes of ultimately winning the evangelical base.
Still, Brownback's support can only help McCain, who absolutely needs a strong showing in Iowa and New Hampshire and other early primary states. At this point McCain needs "values voters" who might have written him off to at least take a second look—and to decide that they like what they see.