Leading GOP Candidates Court Social Conservatives

Friday, October 19th 2007, 8:49 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Leading Republican presidential candidates, all flawed in the eyes of influential social conservatives, sought Friday to convince the restive group they will carry the torch for the right flank _ and Rudy Giuliani won't.

``This is not the time to turn our back on the progress we've made on the issues that matter most,'' John McCain, the Arizona senator told a gathering of ``values voters.'' Added Mitt Romney, in prepared remarks: ``We're not going to beat Hillary Clinton by acting like Hillary Clinton.''

Without naming Giuliani, the two challenged the candidacy of the former New York mayor, their thrice-married GOP rival who leads in national popularity polls and has sought common ground with social conservatives despite his support for abortion rights and gay rights. Giuliani argues that whether people agree with him or not on the issues, he has the best chance to beat Clinton, the Democratic front-runner.

All the major Republican presidential hopefuls _ and most of the lesser-knowns _ were speaking to a gathering sponsored by the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group. This segment of the party's base has not coalesced around a Republican candidate.

Ahead of Fred Thompson's Friday address, his campaign distributed fliers trumpeting his anti-abortion rights views and assailing both Giuliani and Romney. Thompson has drawn criticism for conflicting statements on abortion in his Senate races and his lobbying work on behalf of an abortion-rights organization.

On the eve of his address, Thompson told reporters he had no regrets about the work he did on behalf of National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. ``That was private life,'' Thompson said, adding that while in the Senate he opposed abortion rights.

McCain, who got a polite reception from the couple of thousand conference attendees, indirectly slapped at Giuliani, Romney and Thompson.

``I'll match my record of defending conservative principles against any other candidate in this race,'' McCain said, adding that while voters may not always agree with him, ``I hope you know I'm not going to con you.''

Social conservatives, McCain said, should pick a candidate who has demonstrated a consistent commitment to their values. ``I have a record that can be trusted,'' he said.

That pitch gets to the heart of McCain's woes with this group: It doesn't trust the man who in 2000 called its leaders ``agents of intolerance.'' He also hasn't been a vocal champion of its core issues _ even though his voting record on topics like abortion is solidly conservative.

``I have been pro-life my entire public career,'' McCain said. ``I won't ever change my position to fit the politics of the day.''

In his own prepared remarks, Romney, whose Mormon faith has made some evangelical Christians wary, implicitly tries to dismiss the notion that his religion is repelling Christian conservatives. He says: ``I'm pleased that so many people of many faiths have come to endorse my candidacy and my message.''

He also pokes at Giuliani repeatedly. Romney, who ran for governor as a moderate in 2002 but who has shifted to the right as he seeks the presidency, is hoping to emerge as the main alternative to Giuliani.

Setting up a contrast with Giuliani's multiple marriages, Romney says: ``I am pro-family on every level, from personal to political.'' He emphasizes his three-decade-long marriage to one woman, Ann, and talks about their five sons, his daughters-in-law and 10 grandchildren.

As he does often, he talks of ``three legs of the Republican stool'' _ a stronger military, a stronger economy, and stronger families _ that unite the three types of conservatives in the party, defense, economic and social.

Romney adds: ``We won't win the White House with only two out of three or one out of three'' _ a clear reference to Giuliani's moderate-to-liberal views on social issues.