Religious Right's tough call

If not Giuliani, who? Christian conservatives remain unsettled on a GOP champion for '08 race.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After two days of wooing by all the Republican presidential candidates, religious conservatives appear no more in agreement on whom to support than they did going in.

The good news, said some of the 2,500 attendees at the Values Voter Summit organized by the Family Research Council, is that most of the GOP candidates share their views on the bedrock issues of the movement: opposition to abortion rights and support for traditional marriage.

The bad news is that the strongest Republican in national polls, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, is not with them on those issues. And if religious conservatives fail to coalesce around one of the "anti-Giulianis," his chances of getting the nomination rise dramatically – and their issues, they fear, will be off the table. With the next president likely to replace two or more Supreme Court justices, including some who support abortion rights, the opportunity of a generation to overturn the nationwide right to abortion, established in Roe v. Wade, could be lost.

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The next dilemma comes if Mr. Giuliani does get the nomination. Do they vote for him or even help his campaign anyway?

Some attendees would not discuss the "what ifs" of a Giuliani on the general-election ballot, instead expressing hope that another Republican rises to the top. But they agreed that either staying home or voting for a third-party candidate is, in effect, a vote for the Democrat.

"When Giuliani gave his speech, I almost cried," says Dale O'Leary, an author from Avon Park, Fla. "I would vote for him if he were pro-life…. It's a very scary time for us."

Mrs. O'Leary counts herself among those who will still turn out to vote even if the Republicans nominate Giuliani. "Not voting is a vote for her," she says, referring to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton.

For Giuliani, the challenge of his speech on Saturday was to emphasize areas in which he and social conservatives – a core constituency of the Republican base – share common ground and then reassure them as best he could on areas of disagreement.

"I come to you today as I would if I were president, with an open mind and an open heart, and all I ask is that you do the same," Giuliani said, speaking for 40 minutes, twice his allotted time.

He stressed how, during his time as mayor of New York, the city became safer, Times Square was cleaned up, and the welfare rolls declined. He also sought to burnish his credentials in the war on terror, as New York's mayor during 9/11, and pledged that "our goal in Iraq should be clear: victory."

Giuliani's image of toughness is one of his strongest attributes in polls and probably contributes to his strength in surveys of church-going Republicans. A recent Gallup poll showed he was the plurality choice among that constituency, with 27 percent. At a recent Monitor breakfast, Gary Bauer, president of the group American Values, suggested two possibilities for that outcome: that some voters still don't know Giuliani's positions on social issues. "The other possibility, though, is that some of these voters have decided that defending Western civilization is a moral issue, too," he said.

Ed Goeas, Giuliani's pollster, predicts that if the former mayor wins the Republican nomination, "virtually all" of the religious conservative bloc of the GOP will vote for him. "When we get to the general election, you'll only need to say one word to them," he says, referring to Senator Clinton.

Richard Land, influential head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, disagrees. If Giuliani is the GOP nominee, he predicts, between two-thirds and three-quarters of evangelical voters would vote for him. Dr. Land says he personally could not do that, as a matter of moral conscience. But, he adds, "I'm not going to criticize pro-life voters who decide that Giuliani is the lesser of two evils and vote for him in a general election."

In his speech, Giuliani pledged that as president he would nominate Supreme Court justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and John Roberts – the four most conservative justices on the court. But Mr. Bauer seemed unimpressed. He said he would like to talk with Giuliani about whom specifically he would nominate. After all, he says, "President Bush said 'strict constructionist' and tried to give us Harriet Miers," a nominee who withdrew her name after an uproar over her qualifications and concerns about her social views.

Bauer, like others at the conference, is hopeful that his wing of the party can dodge the Giuliani question by helping to nominate someone else.

A straw poll conducted online since August and culminating at the convention proved inconclusive. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney edged out another former governor, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, to win the poll, by a margin of 27.6 percent to 27.1 percent. But of the 952 votes that were cast on-site (out of 5,775 overall), Mr. Huckabee was the clear favorite, with 51 percent, versus 10.4 percent for Mr. Romney.

In the overall vote, libertarian candidate Ron Paul, a congressman from Texas, came in third; former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee came in fourth. Giuliani came in second to last, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona came in last. Some campaigns (such as Romney's and Representative Paul's) had urged their supporters to vote online, which they could do beginning in August, and some conference attendees complained that skewed the result.

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