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In GOP Presidential Debate, Religion Becomes Politics

By David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 5, 2007

With few disagreements among them on national security or economic policy, the Republican presidential hopefuls used social-issue questions in their Thursday night television debate to separate their positions and appeal to different constituents.

The result was considerably less comfortable for the early front-runner, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, than for his top rivals, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

All three have awkward histories to explain on abortion, immigration, stem cell research or religion. But while Romney navigated smoothly through his exam from MSNBC interviewers and McCain soldiered doggedly ahead, Giuliani on occasion appeared stumped.

The low point for the New Yorker came when moderator Chris Matthews asked each of the 10 contenders if the repeal of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision would be a "good day for America."

"Absolutely," said Romney, the first to respond. It was a sentiment quickly echoed by Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), former Wisconsin governor Tommy G. Thompson and McCain.

When it was his turn, Giuliani offered an unenthusiastic, "It would be okay."

"Okay to repeal?" Matthews asked.

"It would be okay to repeal. It would be [okay] also if a strict constructionist judge viewed [ Roe] as precedent, and I think a judge has to make that decision."

"Would it be okay if they didn't repeal it?" Matthews pressed.

"I think the court has to make that decision, and then the country can deal with it," Giuliani said. "We're a federalist system of government, and states can make their own decisions."

Giuliani's equivocation was pointed up when the next candidate, Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.), said, "After 40 million dead, because we have aborted them in this country, I would say that that would be the greatest day in this country's history, when that, in fact, is overturned."

Later in the 90-minute debate, Giuliani had a chance to expand on his answer. A supporter of abortion rights in New York, he said "I hate abortion" and that he supports the ban on federal funding of the procedure. But he said he thought states should decide their own policy, and he acknowledged having supported state-funded abortions in New York.

Romney, who has been criticized for switching from an abortion-rights position as governor to an antiabortion stance now, acknowledged once again having changed his mind on the issue two years ago. But he wrapped himself in a protective cloak, saying, "I took the same course that Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush and [former Illinois congressman] Henry Hyde took, and I said I was wrong and changed my mind and said I'm pro-life. And I'm proud of that, and I won't apologize to anyone for becoming pro-life."

When the topic turned to embryonic stem cell research, Romney made himself part of the majority, rejecting the pleas of Nancy Reagan and opposing any government funding of research that results in the destruction of human embryos. Almost all the others joined him in touting the potential of adult stem cells as an alternative.

But McCain, while acknowledging "this is a tough issue for those of us in the pro-life community," sided with Nancy Reagan in saying "we need to do what we can to relieve human suffering" by pushing forward the research. And Giuliani once again challenged the most conservative elements of his party by saying, "As long as we're not creating life in order to destroy it, as long as we're not having human cloning . . . there is plenty of opportunity to then use federal funds. "

Brownback, Tancredo and Huckabee were the three candidates most in tune with the religious-conservative wing of the GOP, a potent force in two of the three earliest-voting states: Iowa and South Carolina.

At another point, when candidates were asked to raise their hands if they disagreed with the theory of evolution, only those three did so.

When McCain was asked if he believed in evolution, he said yes, then quickly added that when he sees the Grand Canyon at sunset, "the hand of God is there also."

The others, including Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), a libertarian who was not asked the abortion question, stood silent -- indicating that they accept evolution.

Tancredo later issued a statement saying that "evolution explains changes in life. Creationism explains its origin." Brownback later told The Washington Post that "it's obvious from observation there's a microevolution within species, but I do think there's a role for the divine in the incredible nature of the mind and the complexity of the cell."

Huckabee told The Post: "I believe that there is a God and that he put the creative process in motion. I don't know how he did it. He may have used some sort of evolutionary process. I tend to believe that he did it as Scripture says, but I know that a lot of people believe differently, and of course I respect their beliefs."

On another volatile social issue -- Congress's intervention in the Terri Schiavo case -- the three front-runners found themselves in agreement: The fate of the brain-injured Florida woman should have been left to state authorities.

When the lower courts ruled that her feeding tube could be removed at her husband's request, over the objections of her parents, Romney said, "I think Jeb Bush and the Florida legislature did the right thing by saying, 'We've got a concern.' . . . But the decision of Congress to get involved was a mistake."

McCain called it "a very difficult case," adding: "In retrospect, we should have taken some more time, looked at it more carefully, and probably we acted too hastily" in voting to intervene.

Giuliani noted that "the family was in dispute," and said, "That's what we have courts for. And the better place to decide that in a much fairer and even in a deeper way is in front of a court."

Staff political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.

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