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Republicans confront a faith-based dilemma

If Rudy Giuliani were to win the 2008 Republican nomination, it would be a remarkable change of course within the Grand Old Party.

Twice divorced, not a regular churchgoer, and a believer in abortion rights and gay rights, Giuliani would seem anathema to the religious conservatives who have been an important part of the Republican coalition for the past 20-plus years.

But Giuliani is holding his own among self-described regular churchgoers and evangelicals, according to recent polls.

And so he continues to confound pundits and send religious right leaders into huddles to strategize about what to do if he is nominated.

Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith remains an undertow to his campaign, will give two of the most important speeches of the campaign so far to a “values voters” summit in Washington this week arranged by the Family Research Council and other top evangelical and religious conservative groups.

Both Romney and Giuliani gave glimpses of their message Tuesday before the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Giuliani did not mention abortion or gay marriage, but he was introduced as a man with “moral clarity,” and he built much of a rambling speech around fighting “Islamic terrorists” as the great challenge of these times.

Giuliani also said that Republicans need “a coast-to-coast candidate” who could compete with the Democrats in all 50 states.

Later, Romney was asked by Las Vegas pediatrician Leroy Bernstein why so many Americans – nearly 30 percent in some polls – say they would be unlikely to vote for a Mormon candidate.

Romney responded that Mormons, evangelicals and Jews shared fundamental values: “We believe in God. . . . We believe that liberty is a gift of God. Those principles will be part of the values which I bring to the White House if I am fortunate enough to become your president, and they are not faith-specific. They are part of a faith-values system that all Americans ascribe to.”

A Gallup Poll released in early October showed that Romney was viewed nearly as negatively as he was positively by many regular churchgoing Protestants, significantly worse than other GOP contenders and worse than Democrats Barack Obama and John Edwards.

Focus on the Family’s James Dobson has said he could not support Giuliani, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson or Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. But other evangelical leaders appear open to continued courtships.

“Of all the candidates, Mayor Giuliani is the most problematic from the standpoint of values-motivated voters, no question about that,” said Gary Bauer, who has organized private meetings between GOP candidates and religious conservative leaders.

He said Giuliani has to do much more “reaching out, in making clear what he will be willing to do as president on the things they care about.”

Some Christian conservatives, Bauer said, may not yet know that Giuliani favors abortion rights.

“The other possibility, though, is that some of these voters think that defending Western civilization is a moral issue, too, and they are weighing that in the balance,” Bauer said.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said it’s a stretch to think that Giuliani will appeal to social conservatives and that a “simple ABC song of ‘Anybody But Clinton’ is not enough to motivate and attract social conservatives, especially younger social conservatives.”

In a breakfast with reporters organized by The Christian Science Monitor, Perkins was more receptive to Romney, who has been criticized for converting to anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage positions to appeal to religious voters.

“That is what we do: We try to change people’s hearts and minds. And when they do, I for one welcome them with open arms,” said Perkins, a Southern Baptist.

Chuck Raasch is political editor for Gannett News Service. E-mail: craasch@gns.gannett.com. Get more behind-the-scenes reports, context and analysis about politicians and the political process in Raasch’s Furthermore blog.

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