A few months ago, the New York Observer reported that various right-wing Catholic activists were gearing up to target Rudy Giuliani’s campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.
Mr. Cella says that the organization will try to provide a comprehensive, Web-based “clearinghouse” of issue-based opposition research, and that it will also engage in the distribution of more traditional negative literature, as when the group recruited a handful of volunteers to network and pass out its anti-Rudy materials at the South Carolina debate earlier this month.
“More is afoot—not just from us, but others,” said Mr. Cella, who has also served as an editor at the popular conservative Web site Redstate.com. “It will be edgy. Creative. Hard-hitting.”
Cella and his organization, Fidelis, seem to exist primarily to level accusations of “anti-Catholic” bigotry against Democrats, which is why his anti-Giuliani work was interesting … and which makes this development all the more intriguing:
Now the Christian right is eyeing former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, who is thought to be on the verge of entering the race. And Thompson is waging a rigorous behind-the-scenes effort to win its support.
U.S. News has learned that [Fred] Thompson recently hired Bill Wichterman, who served as conservative outreach director for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Joseph Cella, president of a conservative Catholic group called Fidelis, to lead the effort. The aides are arranging more meetings between Thompson and conservative Christian leaders and have launched a rapid-response operation to fend off attacks on Thompson’s conservative credentials.
But Cella is not the only right-wing figure that Thompson has approached – and he seems to be winning a lot of converts:
Thompson is emphasizing his eight-year record as a senator from Tennessee and his campaign endorsements from the National Right to Life Committee. “It didn’t look like he was saying what a group of Christian consultants told him to say,” says Harry Jackson, a black pastor who met recently with Thompson. “He seemed to be saying, ‘I’m one of you.'”
Contrasts. Jackson has also met with Romney but notes that Thompson has a conservative Senate voting record, while Romney’s conservatism has come in just the past few years. “Romney has done a superb job reaching out,” says Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “But it takes a long time to establish that trust and credibility.”
Many evangelical leaders are leaning toward Thompson but are waiting to see how he holds up under increased scrutiny once he officially enters the race. “There’s a deliberate attempt by evangelical leaders to come to consensus,” says Jackson. David Barton, an evangelical activist who spearheaded pastor outreach for the Republican National Committee in 2004, says “the leaders I talk to are all really interested in Thompson, but they’re waiting to pull the trigger [on endorsements] until later this year.”
Thompson still faces stumbling blocks among rank-and-file evangelicals, including his own reputation as an infrequent churchgoer. But “Thompson’s very good on the defense of normal marriage and free expression of religion,” says one time presidential candidate Gary Bauer. “Frankly, he might have an easier time…if he’s not easily labeled as ‘religious right.'”
Bauer is right: Thompson “might have an easier time … if he’s not easily labeled as ‘religious right.'” Of course, that label will only become more and more difficult to avoid if he keeps hiring, meeting with, and winning accolades from right-wing leaders such as Joseph Cella, Richard Land, Harry Jackson, Tony Perkins, David Barton, and Gary Bauer.