Republican hopefuls to address 'religious right'

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WASHINGTON, Oct 19 (Reuters) The Republican contenders in the 2008 presidential race will try to woo a tough crowd today and Saturday at a ''Values Voter Summit:'' conservative Christians who have yet to rally around a single candidate.

Comprising mostly white evangelical Protestants known loosely as the ''religious right,'' the group is an important part of the Republican base, credited with securing two White House terms for President George W Bush.

But their influence within the party has been challenged by the showing of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is leading national Republican polls despite his support of abortion and gay rights -- positions anathema to the movement.

Giuliani was initially not going to address the Washington meeting of social conservative activists but is now scheduled to speak today morning.

The conference also will feature other Republican hopefuls, including former Massachusetts Gov Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov Mike Huckabee and Arizona Sen John McCain.

Some evangelicals are throwing their support behind Romney, a recent convert to the anti-abortion cause whose biggest drawback in the view of some analysts is his Mormon faith.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 52 per cent of white evangelicals who attend church on a weekly basis did not view the Mormon faith as Christian.

But some evangelical activists say they have much in common with followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the faith is officially known. Mormons are socially conservative and tend to vote Republican.

''We are electing a president and not electing a pastor. You are not going to see any difference between a Southern Baptist family and a Mormon family on family values,'' said David French, one of the co-founders of Evangelicals for Mitt.

''They are every bit as Republican as evangelicals,'' he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Other anti-abortion social conservatives such as Texas Gov Rick Perry have embraced Giuliani because they say they agree with most of his positions and that it is not necessary to agree rigidly on every thing.

''Giuliani has come across as strong on the war on terrorism and he has signaled strong support for Israel and these positions appeal to evangelicals,'' said Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center.

But for some, opposition to abortion is not an option.

''There are some lines we will not cross and abortion is one of them,'' Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, the conservative lobby group hosting the summit, said in a recent interview.

Heavyweight social conservatives such as Perkins and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson have said they will back a third-party candidate if Giuliani gets the nomination.

That may highlight the limits of their current influence within the Republican Party, which some analysts say has been curtailed by emerging evangelical divisions on other issues such as the environment, health care and poverty.

Reuters SYU DB1059

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