The Law of the Sea convention, a relic of the 1970s, could become the next fight of this year's Republican presidential campaign, with some of the candidates trying to push it to the front of the debate.
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who is emerging as a top-tier challenger, has called it "one of the defining issues of our time" and used this weekend's Values Voter Summit in Washington to blast the treaty as a threat to U.S. freedom.
"Let's stop the Law of Sea Treaty," Mr. Huckabee said, drawing an ovation from religious conservatives as he listed it and judges who abide by international law as prominent dangers to U.S. sovereignty.
He has been joined by former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, both of whom this week announced their own fears about the convention, underscoring a wariness among Republican voters about international organizations and anything that expands the reach of the United Nations.
"Governor Romney has concerns with the Law of the Sea Treaty," said Mr. Romney's spokesman, Kevin Madden. "He believes giving unaccountable international institutions more power is a serious problem."
Mr. Thompson went even further, saying he opposes the convention because it "threatens U.S. sovereignty and gives a U.N.-affiliated organization far too much authority over U.S. interests in international waters."
The convention creates rules governing ocean navigation, conservation and seabed mining. Its official name is the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea though opponents call it the Law of the Sea Treaty because they like the acronym LOST.
It was negotiated between 1973 and 1982, stalled when President Reagan raised concerns in 1982, was revived through new negotiations under President George H.W. Bush and was sent to the Senate by President Clinton. The current White House has also called for ratification, arguing the convention would help preserve navigational freedom for the Navy, among other benefits.
But opponents worry the tribunal created to judge disputes would trample on U.S. rights and say the convention's new governing body would have taxing authority because it could take a percentage of revenue from oil, gas or other commercial exploration outside of territorial waters.
The issue is becoming a litmus test for Republicans.
The party's top leadership in the Senate announced Wednesday — which was United Nations Day, the anniversary of the international body's founding — they will try to defeat it if Democrats bring it to the floor.
Sen. Jeff Sessions said the treaty could become an issue in the Republican primary because it's the sort of thing Republican voters care about.
"I think it's pretty clear. I think this will be a strong issue," the Alabama Republican said.
But the treaty does have support of some of the most senior Republicans in the Senate, such as Sen. Richard G. Lugar, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The convention was scheduled for a vote in that committee this week, but that was put off until next week.
Democrats would like to bring the measure to the floor this year, but it's not clear whether the schedule will allow that. Ratification would require a two-thirds vote by the full Senate.
If it does come to the floor, it could put Sen. John McCain, who is also running for the Republican presidential nomination, in a difficult position.
Mr. McCain has been one of the treaty's key backers, sending a letter in 1998 along with Sen. Olympia J. Snowe and then-Sens. John Chafee and Frank Murkowski urging ratification. He was also set to testify on behalf of the treaty before a Senate committee in 2003, though he had to cancel because of scheduling.
The issue may be too hot to handle for others.
White House hopeful Rudolph W. Giuliani's campaign didn't return repeated messages left Wednesday and yesterday seeking information on his position.