Thompson, Romney struggle for the ‘family values’ banner

Times Staff Writer

The emergence of Fred Thompson as a top contender in the Republican presidential race has sparked a clash with rival Mitt Romney over the social conservatives who are crucial to winning the GOP nomination.

In his opening salvo, Romney has seized upon Thompson’s work as a lobbyist who tried to lift federal restraints on abortion counseling in the early 1990s.

Thompson, a former Tennessee senator, describes himself as “pro-life.” But billing records released Thursday confirmed that -- contrary to his initial denial -- he charged $4,790 for lobbying and legal work he did for the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Assn.


Thompson has not formally entered the White House race, but he is expected to do so soon. He would be the only prominent Southerner in the contest, and polls have found that he has a strong appeal to religious conservatives.

That dynamic poses a threat to Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who has tried to position himself as the party’s most viable “family values” candidate.

“In many ways, the Romney campaign and the emerging Thompson campaign are on a collision course when it comes to campaigning for this constituency of conservative Christians,” said John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

For weeks, Thompson has targeted the party’s conservative wing as the foundation of his nascent candidacy, using talk radio and blogs to build grass-roots support as he has traveled the nation raising money.

But disclosure of his lobbying to ease a rule that barred abortion counseling at federally funded clinics gave Romney an opening to try to block Thompson’s momentum.

When the Los Angeles Times reported Thompson’s lobbying for the family-planning group earlier this month -- based on minutes of one of the organization’s board meetings and several interviews with those familiar with the matter -- his spokesman, Mark Corallo, denied it had taken place. “There’s no documents to prove it, there’s no billing records, and Thompson says he has no recollection of it -- says it didn’t happen,” Corallo said.

Since then, Thompson and his spokesmen have been more coy on the subject. In an interview with the conservative RedState Radio, Thompson questioned the authenticity of the board minutes. “It’s like, I come up with a piece of paper and say it’s true because I wrote it down here,” Thompson said, adding that he would not “respond to client matters or alleged client matters.”

“I’m not going to go back and get into ‘who shot John’ every time they scrounge up somebody who I may not even be able to remember,” he told RedState Radio.

A new Thompson spokeswoman, Burson Snyder, did not return calls for comment on the billing records Thursday.

The records showed that Thompson billed for 19 hours of work for the family planning group in 1991 and 1992. His efforts included 23 conversations with Judith DeSarno, then the group’s president and three with unnamed officials of President George H.W. Bush’s administration.

The New York Times published an article detailing the billing records Thursday.

Hours later, the Romney campaign e-mailed a Christian Broadcast Network story on the matter to hundreds of conservative activists around the country.

In an interview published Wednesday on the San Francisco Examiner’s website, Romney suggested that Thompson’s years of work as a Washington lobbyist and senator would hinder the Tennessean’s presidential campaign. “You’re going to have to show the ability to be distinct from Washington,” Romney said. “I don’t think America is going to elect a Washington insider the next president.”

The interest gathering behind Thompson has come just as Romney was starting to build a solid lead in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, scheduled to be the first two states to hold 2008 nominating contests.

For both men, the battle for religious conservatives is crucial. Many have been unhappy with the party’s candidates, including its front-runner in national polls, Rudolph W. Giuliani. The former New York mayor supports abortion rights.

But neither Romney nor Thompson is a sure bet with social conservatives, particularly on abortion. Romney, who now describes himself as “pro-life,” supported abortion rights in his Massachusetts campaigns. Some evangelical Christians have also expressed wariness of the fact that he is Mormon.

Thompson’s record on abortion is also mixed. He voted along antiabortion lines during his eight years in the Senate (he took his seat in late 1994), but has long sent mixed messages in public remarks on the subject.

“The real problem is that I actually don’t think either one of them are logical candidates for the Christian right, so they’ve both got their work cut out for them,” said Clyde Wilcox, a government professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

On Monday, Romney started airing a television ad in selected states calling for “less violence and sex on TV.” On Thursday, he formed a “faith and values” steering committee of 92 Iowans.

For Thompson, who affirmed his opposition to abortion in a video presentation last month to the National Right to Life Convention, the lobbying controversy has meant sour publicity.

On conservative blogs, which Thompson supporters have used aggressively to promote his candidacy, a note of dampened enthusiasm arose upon disclosure of the billing records.

Though many suggested that Thompson’s antiabortion credentials remained solid, others expressed disapproval of the way he and his spokesman handled the matter.

On the website for American Spectator magazine, blogger John Tabin called Thompson “a guy who became pro-life more than a decade ago, but who doesn’t tell the truth about his pro-choice history.”

In the same posting, he called Romney “a guy who became pro-life roughly 10 minutes before deciding to run for president, but who at least is willing and able to somewhat plausibly assure you that his change of heart is genuine.”