Politics & Government

GOP hopefuls woo social conservatives

GOP candidates debate, voters choose.
GOP candidates debate, voters choose. David P. Gilkey / Detroit Free Press

WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidates courted social conservatives Friday, seeking the support of a bloc of voters that hasn't coalesced behind any one candidate.

Yet each hopeful still faced obstacles in rallying support from the "values voters" who helped George W. Bush win both his party's nomination and the White House. And interviews with many of those voters suggested that they remain divided about whom to support and unified so far only by their opposition to Rudy Giuliani, a Republican who supports abortion and gay rights.

"I'm still trying to figure it all out," said Todd Love of Powhatan, Va.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made perhaps the most focused pitch for support, using an evening speech to portray himself as a zealous foe of abortion and friend of traditional marriage, even dispatching volunteers to hand out buttons proclaiming, "Evangelicals for Mitt," and rolling out endorsements from Christian conservatives.

"I am pro-family on every level, from personal to political," Romney said in a prepared text of his remarks.

But Romney faces questions

among some Christian conservatives about his switch from abortion rights supporter to foe, and about his Mormon faith.

For his part, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson told the assembly he'd pray in the Oval Office.

"I don't really know what I would do in my first 100 days — it depends on the circumstances," Thompson said. "I know what my priorities are, and I'm talking a lot about them. But ...I know what I would do the first hour that I was president. I would go into the Oval Office and close the door and pray for the wisdom to know what was right."

Thompson faces criticism from some in this crowd for refusing to back a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and for what some attendees called a lackluster performance.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona called himself the most consistent opponent of abortion in the field of candidates.

"I have been pro-life my entire public career," McCain said. "I am the only major candidate in either party who can make that claim."

Yet he, too, faced doubts from the conservative audience, in his case because he wrote a campaign-finance law that they think put the Republican Party at a disadvantage.

Voters attending the meetings were divided.

Nancy French, a writer from Columbia, Tenn., said she liked Romney because he was the most committed opponent of abortion and gay marriage, regardless of his earlier support. She said she didn't care about his Mormon faith.

"I would never ask him to speak at my Sunday school," she said. "But there is absolutely no daylight between us on the issues."

Bonnie Clark of Ship Bottom, N.J., said she had no problem with Romney's faith but thought others would object. "Some don't think it's a Christian faith," she said.

She said she didn't like Thompson's stand against a marriage amendment and found his speech "plodding" and disappointing. "He's just not interesting to listen to. I find it amazing he was an actor," she said, adding that she was leaning toward long-shot candidate Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado.

Brad Davis, a teacher from of Waynesboro, Va., said he liked former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for his experience as a state executive and as a former Baptist preacher. Asked why Huckabee hasn't won more support from social conservatives, Davis said, "People are still fishing."