Republicans Court a Skeptical Bloc


By: Wall Street Journal

By AMY SCHATZ
October 20, 2007

WASHINGTON — Leading Republican presidential candidates auditioned for Christian conservatives gathered here, hoping to capture their votes, if not their hearts.

Pledging to appoint strict constructionist judges and stop same-sex marriages if elected, the Republican candidates vied to offer the most-appealing socially conservative message to the about 2,000 Christian conservatives gathered in Washington this weekend for a two-day Values Voter Summit.

It promises to be an uncomfortable visit for both sides. Christian conservatives, who make up an important voting block for Republicans, had one of their own in the White House for the past seven years. Many are deeply dissatisfied with the choice of Republican candidates, for varying reasons.

The leading candidates, meanwhile, are trying to rally Christian conservatives who distrust their antiabortion credentials and who are threatening to either abstain from primary contests this winter or back a third-party candidate.

An evangelical favorite, Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, dropped out of the presidential race Friday. He cited fund-raising difficulties, a problem that is also afflicting another preferred candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister.

Conversely, the current Republican front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, doesn’t sit well with many evangelical voters. Strikes against him include his support of abortion and gay rights and, to a lesser extent, his three marriages and apparent uneasy relations with his children.

Mr. Giuliani is scheduled to address the group Saturday morning. “Just the fact he’s showing up will soften the opposition,” said Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, a conservative interest group.

The former New York City mayor may speak less in hope of winning the votes of people in the room than in simply ensuring they don’t actively work against his nomination. As he did when talking to another hostile group, the National Rifle Association, he is expected to strike a conciliatory tone and tout his ability to defeat Mrs. Clinton.

The dilemma for the conservatives, as Republican Ohio Congresswoman Jean Schmidt put it during the conference: Do they support a candidate they would otherwise find unsuitable, or see “that woman” — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York — win the White House?

“Sometimes we don’t always get the candidate we believe in 100%, but sometimes we have to look at the better prizes out there,” she said.

Other Republican hopefuls, including former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, highlighted their antiabortion credentials at the summit, in contrast with Mr. Giuliani. They also positioned themselves as the best man to defeat Mrs. Clinton, who is leading the Democratic race.

“We’re not going to beat Hillary Clinton by acting like Hillary Clinton,” said Mr. Romney, according to prepared remarks released by his campaign.

Mr. McCain said he would put his record of “defending conservative principles against any other candidate in this race,” even as he conceded social conservatives “might not always agree with me on every issue.”

His efforts to court evangelicals have met with mixed success. Many haven’t forgiven him for calling Christian conservative leaders “agents of intolerance” during his 2000 presidential campaign.

Mr. Thompson’s campaign blanketed the event with notices contrasting his antiabortion record with those of Messrs. Giuliani and Romney. He portrayed himself as a “consistent conservative.”

His views may appeal, but his lackluster campaigning worries some evangelicals, who question his electability. Some evangelicals appear to be taking a second look at Mr. Romney, despite concerns about his Mormon faith.

This week Mr. Romney’s campaign received a boost when he was endorsed by prominent Christian conservatives Bob Jones III, chancellor of the fundamentalist university in South Carolina named for his family, and Don Wilton, former president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

Results of a straw poll taken during the conference, slated for release Saturday afternoon, may shed some light on which of the candidates has the best chance of cornering the evangelical vote.

Write to Amy Schatz at Amy.Schatz@wsj.com

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