WASHINGTON -- More than 2,000 conservative "values voters" have gathered in the basement of a Hilton Hotel this weekend to hear from the nine Republican candidates for president seeking their endorsement. On Saturday afternoon, conference organizers will announce the results of a straw poll, ostensibly showing which candidate is doing the best among this crucial voting bloc. So America will finally know the identity of the 2008 "family values" candidate.
Not so fast.
The straw poll is little more than a single weathervane in the hurricane known as the Republican primary. Rumors abound that the Arlington Group, a coalition of mostly religious leaders founded by the American Family Association and the Free Congress Foundation, is also meeting in the next several days to discuss its next step, which may or may not include an informal endorsement. On Saturday afternoon, a second group of religious leaders who first gathered in September in Salt Lake City will hold another meeting to discuss contingency plans if pro-choice candidate Rudy Giuliani wins the nomination.
Then there is a third unnamed group of pro-life and family values leaders, which has been privately interviewing Republican candidates with the aim of making an endorsement. "We've got another group that is not the Arlington Group, although there are people from Arlington in it, that has been interviewing candidates for over a year, or having a conversation with candidates," explained former presidential candidate Gary Bauer in the Hilton hallway Friday morning. "We tend to be people who do have vehicles where we can do overt political things, whereas a lot of people at the Arlington Group are in ministries, so they really can't."
The membership list of this third group and the content of its meetings are not made public, said Bauer, who now runs American Values. "We're just a bunch of good old boys," he explained.
So whom will this third group endorse? Probably no one, said Bauer. He expected the group to conclude this weekend that there would be no consensus nominee, freeing each of the members to make individual endorsements. "There was a moment of insanity about 18 months ago where we all thought that we could all agree," Bauer said. "But that is about as likely as herding cats."
Or like herding cats in a hurricane. The point is: Not gonna happen anytime soon.