Monday, May 14, 2007

Several leading Christian conservatives say they will rally to former Sen. Fred Thompson, who they expect to announce “in a matter of weeks” that he will seek the Republican nomination for president next year.

“It’s not ‘if’ but ‘when,’ he will announce,” one Protestant evangelical leader says of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering for position in the 2008 race.

A prominent Roman Catholic social conservative says the three Republicans who have raised the most money and have led the polls — former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — fall short of social conservatives’ expectations, but Mr. Thompson doesn’t. “He’s right on the issues … He’s better than all of the above.”

Both the Protestant and Catholic activist, like other Christian conservatives, spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity.

They say their support for Mr. Thompson is shared by like-minded conservatives, though the sentiment is not unanimous in their circles. Many born-again Christians are said to be skeptical of Mr. Giuliani’s views on abortion and same-sex “marriage,” of Mr. Romney’s change of position on abortion and of his Mormon religious faith, and of Mr. McCain’s advocacy of campaign-finance reforms that restrict speech and issues-advocacy ads.

Mr. Thompson, whose celebrity is based on his television and movie acting roles as well as his tenure as a senator from Tennessee, has consistently opposed abortion rights, but until recently had backed campaign-finance laws unpopular with advocacy groups on both the right and left.

The move toward Mr. Thompson was said to have been afoot before Mr. Giuliani, the Republican front-runner in the early polls, announced last week that he supports abortion rights, restrictions on the ownership of guns, and the legal recognition of same-sex unions with some of the benefits and privileges of marriage.

“It’s the moment of truth for conservatives,” says one of the Christian conservative activists. “Either social conservatives rally to stop a Giuliani nomination and victory for him in November 2008 or our issues — abortion, same-sex marriage, the preservation of the family — are permanently off the Republican Party agenda.”

Of the dozen or so Republican possibilities, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and an ordained Baptist minister, is most closely associated with the Christian conservatives, but he is thought to be especially vulnerable to liberal critics in the press and the Democratic Party. He has been ridiculed in several liberal publications and elsewhere for indicating in the recent Republican debate his skepticism of the theory of evolution, though he does not oppose teaching it in the public schools as theory.

The Christian conservative figures say they are favorably impressed by Mr. Thompson’s wife, Keri Kehn, a full-time mother of two young Thompson children. She formerly was on the staff of the Senate Republican Conference and the Republican National Committee.

Mr. Thompson served eight years in the Senate, winning a special election in 1994 for the remaining two years of Vice President Al Gore’s term and was elected to a full term in 1996. He has appeared in several movies, once as a president of the United States, and portrays a tough New York district attorney on the popular TV series “Law & Order.”

He worked to guide John G. Roberts Jr. through his nomination as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and then to raise money for the defense of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr. He helped collect $5 million for the defense of Mr. Libby, convicted in March of obstruction of justice, perjury and lying to the FBI about the purported “outing” of former CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Mr. Thompson is chairman of the International Security Advisory Board, a bipartisan panel that reports to the secretary of state on emerging strategic threats. In 2000, he was national chairman for Mr. McCain’s presidential campaign.

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