Evangelicals Lukewarm Toward GOP Field

Mitt Romney's changing stance on abortion raises the suspicions of some evangelicals.
Mitt Romney's changing stance on abortion raises the suspicions of some evangelicals. (By Jeff Roberson -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 19, 2007

For months, Republican presidential candidates such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and John McCain have courted evangelical Christians, meeting with religious leaders throughout the Midwest and the South.

Today, thousands of Christian conservatives will gather in Washington to confront the fact that none of the candidates has won them over.

For Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), the conference will be an opportunity to do what months of private meetings have failed to accomplish: become the consensus candidate for the evangelical movement, a key constituency of the Republican Party.

"At the moment, there's nothing but confusion every place I go," said Chuck Colson, who runs the Prison Fellowship, a national Christian ministry. "They lament the fact that there's no one candidate out there around whom evangelicals and conservative Catholics can sort of coalesce around and get excited about."

He added: "Nobody has rung the bell yet."

White evangelical Protestants represent about a quarter of the electorate, and they voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Political operatives say they are even more crucial to victory in a Republican primary.

The Republican hopefuls have arrived at Frank Page's doorstep one at a time for months. But after meeting with each of them, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of the First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C., remains uneasy and unsure about his choices.

Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, has shown up twice at his office. McCain, a senator from Arizona, saw Page early this year. And this summer, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani spent two hours at a country club near Page's church explaining why he supports abortion rights and hearing Page talk about the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Even as he resists pressure to pick a candidate, Page is fielding calls from national leaders such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who recently threatened to support a third-party candidate if Giuliani is the nominee. Page said Dobson called him recently, almost despondent about a nominating process that has so far not produced a clear favorite for Christian conservatives. And it appears that today the GOP field will lose one of the men who have been aggressively targeting Christians, as Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) is expected to drop out of the contest.

"There is a great deal of angst about who will come forward and be electable, and also close to the social views and moral views we believe in," Page said.

This weekend's conference -- put on by the Family Research Council, a Washington-based group that organizes conservatives on issues such as same-sex marriage -- will highlight the uncertainty among activists and the sense of urgency among the candidates.

Romney, who this week picked up the endorsement of Bob Jones III, the chancellor of Bob Jones University, is viewed with suspicion by some evangelicals because he had previously supported abortion rights, a stance he has since disavowed. Polls suggest that his Mormon faith is also a concern among some evangelical voters.

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