Giuliani Family Values

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his wife Judith Nathan passing the casket of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan inside the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 10, 2004.

Richard Land, the Southern Baptists' ambassador to the very earthly kingdom of politics and policy (his official title is President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination) is a diplomat and an affable character, so when he speaks plainly the words carry weight. And his salvos launched at Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani were the warning shots in the evangelical primary: who has the strongest claim to the hearts and minds of the G.O.P. base?

Other social conservative leaders have warned that Rudy is soft on gays, bad on abortion, weak on guns; it's his policies that make them queasy. His promise to populate the courts with Scalia clones may be enough to appease some of them. But for Land and those he speaks for, the problem is personal. A recent New York Times story detailing Giuliani's estrangement from his children was just the latest reminder of the former New York mayor's baroque marital history.

"You can't win just with white evangelicals" Land says, "but without them you face a loss of apocalyptic proportions." And that's the bad news for Rudy. "The vast majority of those people will not vote for Rudy. The three marriages is a deal killer." Airbrushing his social conservative credentials won't help, Land says. "That would be true of [Former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich as well, who's pro-life. The vast majority of white evangelicals are not going to vote for man in his third marriage, who was unfaithful to his wife in previous marriages." Even if he's running against the candidate conservatives love to hate? "Even against Hillary," Land says. "They just won't vote in that race."

To a lesser extent — as in one less marriage — Arizona Senator John McCain has the divorce problem as well, but that's not the worst of it, in Land's view. "The problem with McCain, and I don't know how he fixes it, is that they believe he's pro-life — he cares about the unborn — but he's so unpredictable. What makes him appealing to independents makes him worrisome to social conservatives. They say, 'Yeah he's pro-life, but will that have anything to do with who he nominates to the Supreme Court?' He's very unpredictable, and people don't like unpredictability in candidates."

Of course the evangelical voters who were baptized into politics in 1976 when one of their own ran for President — that would be Jimmy Carter — were more than ready to abandon him when he turned out to be, of all things, a true believing Democrat, in favor of a divorced Hollywood actor who was elevated to political sainthood. Ronald Reagan's divorce and estrangement from children were not disqualifying — adding yet another motive for candidates of both parties to invoke him as their icon.