- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 24, 2011

Donald Trump could be winning over an important constituency in the Republican Party: the religious right.

Speaking on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of legendary evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham, said he could back the real-estate magnate for president.

“Donald Trump, when I first saw that he was getting in, I thought, ‘Well, this has got to be a joke,’ ” Mr. Graham said. “But the more you listen to him, the more you say to yourself, you know, maybe the guy is right.”

While Mr. Graham stressed that it is far too early to endorse a candidate, he did not rule out backing the billionaire businessman and reality-TV star.

“Yeah, sure,” he responded when asked if Mr. Trump could be his candidate of choice.

Mr. Graham inherited the huge ministry built by his father, who carefully cultivated a public image as a nonpartisan minister to the nation’s leaders - though he came close to officially endorsing then-candidate George W. Bush in 2000.

Winning over social conservatives and faith-driven voters will be key if Mr. Trump throws his hat into the ring in next year’s GOP primaries and caucuses. One of the most recognizable religious figures in America, Mr. Graham’s endorsement would be a coup for Mr. Trump, who has become the top choice of Republican voters in recent polls by hammering away at, among other things, what he calls President Obama’s failure to produce a valid birth certificate.

But the billionaire has also been forced to defend flip-flops on issues like abortion. Formerly pro-choice, Mr. Trump recently said the experience of a friend helped change his mind. He told ABC News the friend and his wife were considering abortion but decided against it, and their decision had a profound impact on him.

Adding the support of a widely respected religious leader like Mr. Graham could assure conservative voters that Mr. Trump is firmly in the pro-life camp. It would also help chip away at the notion his potential candidacy is little more than a publicity stunt, as some critics contend.

The White House, for example, has downplayed Mr. Trump’s electoral chances. Senior adviser David Plouffe said two weeks ago Mr. Trump has “zero chance” of winning the presidency.

Even Republicans are skeptical. In a television interview last week, Karl Rove, former adviser to President George W. Bush, called Mr. Trump’s candidacy “a joke.”

But for Mr. Rove and other detractors, there’s nothing funny about recent polls that show Mr. Trump leading the Republican pack.

A Gallup poll released Friday shows Mr. Trump tied with former Arkansas governor and Fox News Channel host Mike Huckabee atop the Republican field, with each garnering the support of 16 percent of likely Republican voters. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, anointed by some as the GOP front-runner, came in third with 13 percent, and former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin came in at 10 percent.

Meanwhile, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has the support of only 2 percent of Republican voters, according to the poll. Mr. Santorum’s long-standing opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion have made him a favorite of many on the religious right, but, so far, that hasn’t translated into high poll numbers.

Mr. Santorum on Sunday disputed his political reputation as merely “the social conservative” candidate. He spoke at length on “Fox News Sunday” about entitlement-program reform, the national debt and other pressing issues, but reiterated his opposition to same-sex marriage.