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Abortion Questions Fail to Dim Thompson's Conservative Luster

Fred Thompson's appeal to social conservatives may transcend a single issue or incident in the past.
Fred Thompson's appeal to social conservatives may transcend a single issue or incident in the past. (Brett Flashnick - AP)

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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007

The 2 1/2 -minute video of Fred D. Thompson that played at the National Right to Life Committee's annual meeting last month dazzled the group, as the former senator talked about "the most important thing of all in this world -- and that is life."

Richard Land, an official with the nation's Southern Baptists, called the video "stunning in its strong, pro-life message."

In the three weeks that followed, Thompson and his not-yet-official presidential campaign did their best to undo that goodwill. First it was reported that 16 years ago Thompson worked as a lobbyist on behalf of an abortion rights group. Then he and his staff mishandled their response.

Thompson said he had no recollection of his work for the group, which turned out to involve 22 separate discussions. His chief spokesman, Mark Corallo, said there was no documentation that he had done anything, and then, when billing records emerged, Corallo said it was "not unusual" for a lawyer at a firm to offer his counsel on a viewpoint he disagrees with.

But instead of viewing him with suspicion, leading social conservatives are rallying around Thompson, citing his eight-year Senate record as proof of his commitment to fight abortion. They dismiss the lobbying report as an effort to drive a wedge between leaders of their cause and a politician who could be their best hope for putting a kindred soul in the White House.

"The mating dance is going on," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative group. "There is clearly an interest among social conservative leaders in his candidacy."

Campaign aides concede that their responses to the abortion question have been poor. Thompson spokeswoman Burson Snyder said her candidate still "does not recall" doing work for the abortion rights group but concedes the records show he did some "pretty insignificant" consulting.

"These organizations get what's going on here," Snyder said. "They've seen his voting record. They've seen he was endorsed by the National Right to Life group. When the rubber met the road, they know where he was."

The fact that the revelations -- and the campaign's sometimes sloppy response to them -- have not caused more long-term problems underscores the conservative community's desperation for a Republican candidate who is both true to its cause and positioned to win the presidency.

He is hardly alone in wooing social conservatives. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas has organized a 144-member "Catholics for Brownback" group to help him in the Iowa straw poll in early August, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee talks frequently about religion and faith. But both candidates have struggled to raise money and are barely registering in national surveys.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is struggling to convince abortion opponents that his 2005 conversion to an antiabortion stance was genuine. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's support of abortion rights makes him anathema to many in the conservative movement.

Thompson, meanwhile, has hired Joe Cella, the head of the Catholic organization Fidelis, and Bill Witcherman, a former liaison to religious groups for another former Tennessee senator, Bill Frist, to coordinate his outreach to religious groups and social conservatives.

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