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Right Is Might for GOP’s Aspirants

Times Staff Writer

Most Americans know one thing about Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, if they know anything at all: He lost more than 100 pounds in one year, a triumph touted in a weight-loss book that he has hawked around the country.

But evangelical conservative activists know one or two other things that make the governor a standout among Republicans who may run for president in 2008: Huckabee is a Baptist minister and a fierce defender of traditional family values.

“Let’s face it,” he recently told a crowd of Christian conservatives in Iowa, the state that holds the nation’s earliest presidential caucuses. “In our lifetimes, we’ve seen our country go from ‘Leave It to Beaver’ to ‘Beavis and Butt-head,’ from Barney Fife to Barney Frank, from ‘Father Knows Best’ to television shows where father knows nothing.”

Huckabee’s early outreach to evangelicals -- in Iowa and elsewhere -- is a tribute to the clout of the GOP’s Christian conservative wing. That faction was crucial to President Bush’s reelection in 2004, and is maneuvering to have a big say in who wins the party’s nomination in 2008.

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The Iowa Christian Alliance has invited all of the potential Republican candidates to address voters around the state. Antiabortion activists have scrutinized potential contenders’ records. A coalition of national conservative groups has summoned potential candidates to a conference here in September that it expects to be attended by 2,000 or more “values voters.”

“We are looking forward to a vibrant competition among politicians for these voters,” said Gary Bauer, a conservative leader who ran for president in 2000. “No one owns them.”

Because no candidate has a lock on conservative evangelicals, virtually all of the major Republican politicians -- even those who have been at odds with the Christian right on hot-button issues -- see an opportunity to win their favor.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has disavowed past statements supporting abortion rights. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) dropped his support for covering homosexuals in hate crimes legislation. Even Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, whose liberal record on social issues is anathema to many conservatives, recently spoke to a meeting of evangelical leaders in the South.

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But social and religious conservatives’ influence may be limited by the fact that they have not rallied around one candidate. The potential candidates with the best showings in early polls -- Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- are viewed with suspicion by many conservatives. Yet those whom many regard as soul mates of religious conservatives, such as Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), are among the least-known, which suggests they would have the highest hurdles to cross to win the nomination.

So some activists are urging social conservatives to close ranks behind a like-minded candidate to maximize their impact.

“If we get together and get behind a single candidate, we can be formidable,” said Paul M. Weyrich, a conservative leader. “But if we are split up into eight different camps ... it’s going to destroy any chance of being effective.”

It is not clear when or whether that agreement will happen. But it is clear that this faction is still a force, as potential candidates move to curry its favor -- or at least stay off its enemies list.

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“No one seems to be running from the right,” said Brian Hart, Brownback’s communications director. “Every named candidate is making a play for the right, and some seem to be doing a decent job of it. A year ago you would’ve said, ‘No way McCain would be courting conservatives.’ You never would have said a Massachusetts governor would be courting conservatives.”

Christian conservatives -- mostly white evangelical Protestants and increasingly Catholics -- have been a crucial part of the GOP base during the Bush years. They tend to be more concerned about social issues such as abortion, religion in public life and same-sex marriage than are GOP economic conservatives, whose top priorities are cutting taxes and regulation.

With no indisputable front-runner in the emerging GOP field, religious conservatives have an opportunity to wield more influence in the selection than they have had in recent years. In 2000, the establishment consensus behind Bush formed so early that other candidates with closer ties to the religious right, such as Bauer and Alan Keyes, were mere also-rans.

Still, evangelicals easily warmed to Bush, a born-again Christian. They provided crucial votes in the contested 2000 election and even more in his 2004 reelection.

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According to exit polls, Bush received 78% of the white evangelical vote in 2004, up 10 percentage points from 2000, says the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Bush also received 52% of the Catholic vote, up from 47% in 2000.

Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, estimates that a third or more of GOP primary voters are Christian conservatives. That means that they may not be strong enough to pick a nominee, but “they are strong enough to give candidates they dislike a lot of trouble,” said John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

That is why, more than two years before the 2008 election, Republicans are traveling the country to shore up support among evangelicals.

Huckabee is building on ties to religious leaders that he made as a Southern Baptist minister and former president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. He has endorsed South Dakota’s new abortion ban, and last week spoke at a Florida gathering hosted by the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ.

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Brownback appeals to many social conservatives because he has made fighting abortion, embryonic stem cell research and indecency central to his legislative career. He or his staff meets weekly on Capitol Hill with social conservative leaders in a group called the Values Action Team. A recent profile of Brownback and his ties to the religious right in Rolling Stone magazine was headlined “God’s Senator.”

Some see Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) as a solid conservative on economic and social issues who might be more electable than Huckabee or Brownback. Allen recently came in first in a straw poll at a convention of conservative activists.

But other conservatives mistrust Allen because they believe he broke a 2000 campaign promise to oppose the extension of federal hate crimes law to cover homosexuals when he voted for a similar measure in 2004. Under fire from conservatives, including the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, Allen switched his position in December. That was enough to turn Sheldon into an Allen supporter, but it left others dubious.

“The jury is still out about what social conservatives think of George Allen,” said Joe Glover, president of the Family Policy Network, a Christian conservative group.

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Another potential candidate who has labored to appeal to the religious right is Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). He was among the first to call for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and has scheduled a Senate vote on the measure for June. Last year, Frist made extraordinary efforts to pass legislation to keep Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman, alive via feeding tube, a cause celebre of the religious right. Frist was also on the front lines of efforts to confirm Bush’s conservative nominees to federal courts.

But Frist’s star has fallen among conservatives, who recoiled last year when he called for expanded federal backing for embryonic stem cell research. That was anathema to conservatives who see such research as tantamount to destroying human life.

Romney is aggressively courting the religious right because, as a Mormon coming from the liberal state of Massachusetts, he is viewed with suspicion by many Christian conservatives. He has taken flak for saying during his 2002 campaign for governor that he supported a woman’s right to choose abortion. Now he says his view has “evolved” and that he is a determined abortion opponent.

He is trying to promote himself to the party’s right wing as someone who has been on the front lines of battling same-sex marriage. The issue was thrust to the top of the conservative agenda by a Massachusetts state court ruling in support of it.

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Giuliani is widely viewed as the candidate who would have the hardest time winning acceptance among social conservatives because of his record of supporting abortion rights, gun control and gay rights.

“From a social conservative standpoint, he would be way down at the bottom of the heap,” said Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Assn. of Michigan. “At least Romney is trying to flip-flop. Giuliani doesn’t even bother to flip-flop.”

Still, Giuliani did stop by a Florida convention of the Global Pastors Network, an evangelical group, to speak early this year. “I can’t tell you from my heart how much I appreciate what you are doing: saving people, telling them about Jesus Christ and bringing them to God,” Giuliani told the crowd, Time magazine reported.

In a television interview last year, evangelist Pat Robertson praised Giuliani’s record as mayor of New York and said he would make a good president.

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“Although he doesn’t share all of my particular points of view on social issues, he’s a very dedicated Catholic,” Robertson said.

McCain also faces animosity on the right. He antagonized social conservatives in his 2000 presidential campaign by criticizing evangelical leaders’ influence in the GOP. He voted against a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. And GOP conservative activists opposed his signature 2002 campaign finance law, which they believed put their party at a fundraising disadvantage.

But in a sign that he is trying to smooth troubled waters, McCain recently met with one of the evangelical leaders he had criticized -- the Rev. Jerry Falwell. And he has picked up support from prominent Republicans with close ties to social conservatives: Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.).

It is not clear whether that will translate into broader support from the rank and file. Glenn, for example, turned down a chance to meet with McCain during a Michigan visit last year because of McCain’s position on same-sex marriage.

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“That,” Glenn said, “is a nonnegotiable issue.”


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