Pity the religious conservatives. Four years ago, the Republican Party was putty in their hands. Or, at least, it acted like it was. Now the leading Republican candidates all act as if the same born-again Christian leaders whom their party once fawned over are nuisances to be ignored whenever possible.

Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson all skipped last month's "Values Voter Presidential Debate" in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a snub to the religious right that left members of the once-feared special-interest group directing their questions and threats toward empty lecterns. Romney, a Mormon and one of the top frontrunners, makes no apologies for not being the kind of evangelical the religious right tends to prefer. And worse, Giuliani, with his support for abortion and gay rights, is giving people like James Dobson fits and doesn't seem to mind one bit.

At a secret meeting of religious conservatives in Salt Lake City last month, Dobson and several other like-minded leaders vowed to do something about this state of affairs, hammering out a resolution calling for the religious right to consider running a third-party candidate if "a pro-abortion candidate," meaning Giuliani, gets the nomination. But their move, with its hedged language ("we will consider running a third-party candidate") only served to highlight the severely diminished options that religious conservatives now have.

In Washington State, where Romney leads the Republican field in fundraising (followed by McCain and Giuliani), it's hard to find a religious conservative who's happy with the Republican lineup. Although, truth be told, it's hard to find a religious conservative who even wants to talk about the Republican lineup. Jeff Kemp, president of Families Northwest, a group devoted to promoting traditional marriage, declined the opportunity to discuss his presidential preferences. Pastor Ken Hutcherson of Redmond's Antioch Bible Church did not respond to requests for an interview. Other leaders of this state's relatively small religious right either could not be reached or didn't want to air their grievances.

However, Jon Russell, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Network, was game. "It's going to be an interesting year," said Russell, whose organization claims an activist base of about 10,000 religious conservatives in this state. "I've never seen anything like it."

Russell told me that the people he talks to mention Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback as relatively attractive choices, even though neither of the candidates' campaigns are going anywhere at the moment. He blames President Bush for the lack of a viable Republican frontrunner who's also a religious conservative. "Usually there's one candidate that everyone rallies around," Russell told me. "But the president, to his disservice, has not set anyone up to run." What Russell was really upset about, it seemed to me, was that there is simply no reincarnation of Bush in the current Republican field—no one willing to be as brazen in courting, and catering to, the evangelical voter.

All of this leaves Russell mulling over what Bush has actually done for the religious conservative movement ("At the end of the day, the best thing we got out of the whole thing was some good judges on the Supreme Court") and thinking about ways in which it may not matter who the Republicans end up picking. Russell said he felt that Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee would mean a Republican victory even if religious conservatives weren't excited about the party's eventual standard-bearer. "I think Hillary Clinton's going to have a hard time getting above 50 percent," he told me, sounding more hopeful than certain.

Would Russell support a third-party effort if Giuliani gets the Republican nomination? "I think it's premature to be talking about a third party," he said. "He still has to get through the primary."

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Hillary Clinton, intent on creating a sense of her own inevitability as the Democratic primaries approach, announced on October 8 that former Washington State governor Gary Locke had endorsed her candidacy. Locke becomes the third in a rapidly widening circle of Washington "co-chairs" for the Clinton campaign, the first two being Representative Jay Inslee and King County Executive Ron Sims.

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"Gary was a visionary governor and he will be a tremendous asset to our campaign as we take our message of change across Washington," Clinton said in a statement. The announcement did not seem likely to do anything about the fact that Barack Obama has raised more money, and generated more excitement, than Clinton has in Washington State. But it did come at a time when polls in two states that matter much more in the primary process—Iowa and New Hampshire—showed Clinton with a commanding lead. And the candidate herself will soon have a chance to try to drum up more excitement in Washington: She'll be here on October 22 to keynote a Democratic awards banquet at Benaroya Hall, her first visit to the state during this campaign season. recommended