By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Evangelical voters gathered here yesterday to weigh their political options even as one of their champions, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, officially withdrew from the 2008 presidential contest, robbing many of their first choice in the Republican nominating battle.
The 2,000 activists attending the Values Voter Summit listened to the candidates, some prayed for guidance, and many expressed deep discomfort with the Republican Party's two front-runners: former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Romney presented himself as the antiabortion, pro-family, pro-religion contender whom Christian conservatives are seeking.
"I'll oppose taxpayer funding of abortion, oppose partial-birth abortion. I'll oppose abortion in military clinics. I'll work to ban embryonic cloning," Romney promised.
Romney only briefly mentioned his Mormon faith, a source of concern among some Christian groups, saying, "I understand that some people think that they couldn't support someone of my faith," then joking that they must be thinking of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who is also a Mormon.
Giuliani is scheduled to face the group this morning with a message that emphasizes areas where he agrees with social conservatives, such as national security, taxes and the economy.
But in the meeting halls of the Hilton Washington hotel, neither candidate engendered much enthusiasm. "I love his ideas on national security and defense, but you have to swallow the whole pill," Tammy Leinbach, a stay-at-home mom from Maumee, Ohio, said of Giuliani. "Our international ills come because of the warped social ills we have at home."
Craig Chorman, 54, a small-business owner from Fairport, N.Y., said he does not trust Romney's declarations of support for conservative issues because as governor, he took different positions.
"I feel like he hasn't been as consistent, and that concerns me," said Chorman. "We need somebody who stands with their core beliefs instead of putting his finger up in the wind."
Chorman said he voted in the gathering's straw poll for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Brownback pulled the plug on his presidential bid in Topeka, citing difficulty raising money and saying, "My yellow brick road came just short of the White House this time."
Brownback had captured only a few percentage points in most national polls and finished third in Iowa's straw poll this summer, despite campaigning across the state and pouring resources into winning Iowa's evangelical vote.
He officially withdrew after reporting recently that his campaign had $94,000 in cash. "We're out of money," he told reporters.
Brownback was elected to the Senate in 1996 when Robert J. Dole resigned the seat to run for president. He won two full terms in 1998 and 2004. Political observers in Kansas expect that he will seek the governor's office in 2010.
His departure from the race was a disappointment to many here who said they voted for him in the straw poll. Brownback had spent much of his campaign talking about Christian values and stressing his stance against abortion.
"Personally, I always thought that Sam Brownback held the closest, totally consistent views," said John Jakubczyk, a lawyer and past president of Arizona Right to Life.
He said the expectations game destroyed Brownback's candidacy. "Everyone says, 'Oh, we love Sam, but he can't win.' And that became a self-fulfilling prophecy," Jakubczyk said.
Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, which organized this weekend's summit, predicted that religious leaders and activists would leave here having narrowed their choices to three. But that seemed unlikely, judging from the responses to the presidential hopefuls who made their case yesterday.
"Everyone has a flaw. I guess it's going to be what's considered the least liability," said Victoria Cobb, who runs the Family Foundation in Virginia.
While there was skepticism about Romney and Giuliani, two other Republican candidates -- Huckabee and former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) -- received more enthusiastic receptions.
"I like the way [Huckabee] expresses himself. He has the same conservative values I do," said Joyce Griffin, who came from what she described as "serious country," 30 miles outside of Savannah, Ga.
Thompson got polite applause for his pledges to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, then promised that in his first hour as president, he would "go into the Oval Office, close the door and pray for the wisdom to do the right thing."
The crowd leapt to its feet, applauding and yelling its approval to a smiling Thompson.
Jakubczyk was more optimistic than some at the gathering. "A meeting like this helps to energize and remind us that we've got to get back on track," he said. "Unfortunately, the last couple of years, after 2006, there were a lot of people who got depressed, got despondent, got upset, got worried."
"Let's not be depressed," he concluded. "Let's just get to work."