Monday, October 22, 2007

Several conservative leaders yesterday concluded that none of the principal Republican presidential hopefuls deserves their support, not even Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister.

“There was no consensus on candidates, no agreement, period,” a participant confided after the meeting, held at the Washington Hilton one day after several of their groups participated in a “Values Voters” summit at that hotel.

Then, referring to Mr. Huckabee, he said, “He’s finished, I think. Bad things will be coming out about him,” referring to long-standing accusations surrounding Mr. Huckabee’s clemency for a rapist who later murdered someone in another state.

After meeting for more than two hours yesterday, members of the Arlington Group of social-conservative leaders agreed only to call on the president, on Congress and even on the liberal group for a day of prayer on Thanksgiving.

One major figure on the Christian Right who was considered a behind-the-scenes backer of former Tennessee Gov. Fred Thompson, said at yesterday’s closed-door session that he simply didn’t think any of the major Republican hopefuls could pass “the straight-face test” when it comes to commitment to Christian principles.

Asked at the closed-door meeting whom he would “choose if forced at gunpoint,” he surprised many of those present by naming former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon who has gathered endorsements from major social conservatives, including South Carolina’s Bob Jones III.

Mr. Thompson was the first choice of many top Christian conservatives before he announced formally, but his former boosters say he has lost support since because he lacks energy, passion and even knowledge about current events. Mr. Thompson underperformed in both his speech and the straw poll at the Values summit, garnering only 10 percent of the overall vote, including Internet ballots.

The lack of consensus makes it doubtful the Republican Party, struggling to regain the trust and enthusiasm of its base, can look forward to previous years’ “drag your neighbors to the polls” support from Catholic and evangelical Protestants in November 2008. It lost that level of support in the 2006 elections, which produced Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.

Some conservatives, to avoid a third-party candidacy proposed by some on the religious right, argued Mr. Huckabee was the answer. Backing him for the Republican nomination would take the wind out of the third-party advocates’ sails.

They argued he is a well-spoken evangelical with experience as governor of Arkansas. With the public support of big-name leaders in the Christian community, he could attract enough donations to make a difference in the nomination race, they said.

On Saturday, Mr. Huckabee gave the Summit’s best-received speech and came within 30 votes of besting Mr. Romney in a straw poll among more than 2,000 evangelicals who participated.

At a meeting of social-conservative leaders hours later Saturday, a consensus could not be reached on which of the top five Republicans to support for the Republican nomination. Mr. Huckabee garnered the most support among the two dozen leaders at that closed-door meeting.

Talk among political and campaign consultants has been that Mr. Huckabee would be an ideal running mate for former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is pro-choice, or Mr. Romney, whose Mormonism is regarded with skepticism by many evangelical Protestants.

Social and religious conservatives affirmed again yesterday they seek a candidate they can trust in office — one who will do more than pander to their demands during the presidential campaign.

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