Republican Contenders Fight for the Right

ByJake Tapper and Sheila Evans via via logo

Feb. 14, 2007 — -- While Democrats are running to the left, battling it out to win over anti-war liberals, Republican presidential hopefuls are running just as swiftly toward the right to win over the conservatives who make up their party's base.

As recently as 2002, when he was running for governor against Shannon OBrien, who supports abortion rights, Republican contender Mitt Romney told Massachusetts voters, "I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose."

Romney's running mate said that "there isn't a dime of difference between Mitt Romney's position on choice and Shannon O'Brien('s)."

But Tuesday, in announcing that he was running for president, Romney said, "I believe in the sanctity of human life."

Instead of the liberal enclave of Massachusetts, where he has lived for more than 30 years and where he served for one term as governor, Romney declared his candidacy more than 700 miles away in Dearborn, Mich., the state where he was born.

Romney has some work to do to win over social conservatives, who are the key Republican primary voters.

"He's going to have to convince a lot of conservatives that he really means it when he himself says he's a social conservative because he's a fairly new convert," said Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family Action.

Just minutes after Romney's announcement in his home state of Michigan, the campaign of one of his toughest opponents, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., came out swinging.

Michigan lawmakers said McCain, not Romney, shared their conservative principles: against abortion, for tax cuts and for a strong defense.

McCain also has some work to do to convince other conservatives having supported issues many conservatives disagree with, such as fuel efficiency, campaign finance reform, a patients' bill of rights and background checks at gun shows.

Moreover, during his last run for the White House in 2000, McCain put off many Christian conservatives by saying he "reject(s) individuals such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who take our party in the wrong direction."

But since then McCain has tried to mend fences, including speaking at Falwell's Liberty University in May.

"He could, in fact, I believe, become the champion, the hero of religious conservatives," Falwell said of McCain.

Right now, though, conservatives say they really don't have any major ally among the three Republican front-runners: McCain, Romney, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who supports abortion rights, gun control and some gay rights.

"So far, social conservatives have not found a Mr. Right, or maybe it's a Mrs. Right," Minnery said.

Even Giuliani has started to imply that he would support judges who might not share his views on abortion.

"I would appoint judges that interpreted the Constitution rather than invented it, understood the difference between being a judge and being a legislator," Giuliani said recently on the Fox News Channel.

There are some very conservative candidates running for president, including Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Reps. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., but they're only polling in the single digits.

So religious conservatives may have a big dilemma: Do they try to win with a flawed candidate, or do they stick with someone whom they agree with, but who will almost certainly lose?

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