Religious Conservatives Face Hard Choice

The Associated Press
Friday, October 19, 2007; 12:11 PM

WASHINGTON -- Religious and cultural conservatives, a political force skeptical of the leading Republican presidential candidates, are caught in a tug of war between pragmatism and ideology.

"My head and my heart are fighting with each other," said Phil Burress, an Ohioan who has lobbied hard for federal and state bans on gay marriage.

The vexing choices facing these voters:

_Rudy Giuliani, a thrice-married New Yorker who differs with them on abortion, gays and guns but who polls show offers a strong chance to beat a Democrat next fall.

_Mitt Romney, a Mormon from Massachusetts who didn't entirely share their views in the past but who insists he now does.

_Fred Thompson, a Tennessean who hasn't been a vocal champion of their core issues but who had a right-leaning Senate voting record.

_John McCain, an Arizona senator who has a clear socially conservative resume but who dismissed their leaders "agents of intolerance" in 2000.

_Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister and true believer who has an extraordinary hill to climb for the nomination.

For now, social-issue conservatives are scattered across the field of candidates.

It's a splintering that is, perhaps, more severe than in previous presidential elections and that raises questions about the power of a long-influential part of the GOP base. The restiveness has prompted talk of a possible third-party bid, a certain political death knell for the GOP nominee.

Reflecting the quandary these voters face, Focus on the Family's James Dobson has rejected Giuliani and has panned both McCain and Thompson. Romney is the only leading candidate Dobson hasn't denounced _ but he hasn't publicly backed Romney either.

"There's no one Republican presidential candidate that inspires them, and the movement leaders can find fault in one way or another with all the candidates," said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "It's hard to tell if it means that their influence is waning. But they're likely to have more influence if they stay united. The longer they stay behind several candidates, the less influence they'll have."

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