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Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2004 / 11 Shevat, 5764

John H. Fund

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Moore Trouble: Alabama's former chief justice may challenge Bush for the Religious Right vote | A big threat to President Bush's re-election could come if his conservative base chooses not to turn out and vote in large numbers this fall. That's one reason he told a congressional Republican retreat on Saturday that he supports spending caps on the exploding federal budget. But the president could also still face a challenge from a social conservative running as a third-party candidate.

In the past such candidacies have fizzled. But Roy Moore, the ousted Alabama Supreme Court justice who made headlines last year by refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument he placed on public property, could make a difference in a close race. And just last week, he refused to rule out a presidential candidacy.

A lot of people want him to run. Last Saturday, Mr. Moore was a featured speaker at the Christian Coalition's "Family and Freedom" rally in Atlanta. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported he was "treated like a rock star, signing autographs and getting thunderous standing ovations." The week before that, Mr. Moore was the speaker at a dinner in Lancaster, Pa., sponsored by the Constitution Party, which has the third-largest number of registered voters in the U.S. and whose presidential candidate, Howard Phillips, was on 41 state ballots in 2000.

During a question-and-answer period, Mr. Moore was asked if he would run for president. "Not right now," he said, noting he is still appealing his dismissal from office for violating a federal court's order to remove the monument from the Alabama Supreme Court building. "I have to wait till all these things are done to decide my future." His friends say he is undecided about whether to run for president or to wait two years and seek Alabama's governorship.

Mr. Moore installed the Vermont granite monument honoring the Ten Commandments in 2001, shortly after he became chief justice of the state's highest court. Federal courts ordered him to remove it, saying the monument was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. When Mr. Moore refused, an Alabama judicial committee kicked him out of office, saying his defiance brought his court into "disrepute." A special court has been seated to hear his appeal and will probably render a decision in the next month or so.

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For now, Mr. Moore is barnstorming the country giving a speech that uses a mix of constitutional theory and biblical citation to defend his decision. I watched him excite a crowd at a convention of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum activists last year in St. Louis. "I am tired of judges who won't let us pray at high school graduations, football games and in public buildings pushing people of faith around," he thundered.

Mr. Moore's critics say that his behavior in the monument case showed he was more interested in manufacturing a political cause — or candidacy — than in having a lawful display of religious values. Friends of Alabama's Attorney General Bill Pryor and other state officials who opposed Judge Moore note that they have long been on record in favor of religious displays within appropriate, constitutional settings. Mr. Pryor felt he had no choice but to oppose Judge Moore when he decided to disregard a federal court order. But now a group of ministers who back Mr. Moore want President Bush to withdraw Mr. Pryor's nomination to a federal appeals court. Mr. Moore himself told me at the Eagle Forum convention that "Bill Pryor made a decision on who he would side with and I'm disappointed it's not with the people."

There is no doubt that Mr. Moore's civil disobedience struck a chord with some elements of the population, but are they enough to sustain a presidential candidacy? "If he can get on talk shows and stir up conservative voters he could easily get significantly more than the usual third-party vote totals," says Richard Winger, a leading authority on independent candidacies and editor of Ballot Access News. He notes that while the Libertarian and Green parties are much better known, the Constitution Party has 320,000 registered voters around the country and guaranteed ballot access in large states such as California and Pennsylvania. Its national convention won't be held until June 22, giving Mr. Moore time to exhaust the appeal of his dismissal before the Alabama courts.

There are also signs that Mr. Moore's issue — the public display of Scripture and religious themes — isn't going away. Local officials are seeking to remove a Ten Commandments monument from a public building in Everett, Wash. Last month, a similar monument was placed in a public building in Winston-Salem, N.C., by Vernon Robinson, a city councilman who is running for Congress. It has since been removed. Media outlets seem to love a good controversy and will likely publicize more of these stories is Mr. Moore runs for office.

Reporters who want to see President Bush face a tight race this year will be particularly interested in spilling a lot of ink on Mr. Moore, should he decide to run for president. That's why Republican strategists are trying to talk him into campaigning this year for GOP candidates who agree with his stance rather than mount a quixotic campaign for the nation's highest office. "He can get a lot of attention this year for his themes," one told me. "The question is whether he does it in a way that will help conservatives or whether he tries to do it in a way that could make him the Ralph Nader spoiler of the right in 2004."

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©2001, John H. Fund