WASHINGTON, Nov 7 (Reuters) Two leading Christian conservatives split their U.S. presidential endorsements today, with Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani winning surprise backing from evangelist Pat Robertson despite the former New York mayor's support of abortion rights.
Robertson, a one-time presidential candidate himself, gave his backing because Giuliani has stated his personal opposition to abortion and his willingness to appoint conservative Supreme Court judges like Chief Justice John Roberts.
''He understands the need for a conservative judiciary,'' said Robertson, who founded the influential Christian Coalition and a religious broadcasting empire. ''We have some patterns that he said he will follow. That's what he's told the American people and I believe him.'' Giuliani has led the field for the Republican nomination for the November 2008 presidential election but conservatives have questioned his support of abortion rights, gay rights and gun control, as well as his two divorces. Some even have raised the possibility of backing a third-party candidate.
Instead of those hot-button issues, Robertson said the most important concern for him was fighting ''Islamic terrorists'' and that Giuliani's performance during the September 11 attacks in 2001 showed he was best suited to deal with the threat.
About 1,450 km west in Dubuque, Iowa, Republican rival Sen. John McCain, who has had an uneasy relationship with conservative Christians, won the endorsement of his conservative Senate colleague Sam Brownback, who dropped out of the 2008 race last month.
''John McCain is the only candidate who can rally the Reagan coalition of conservatives, independents and conservative Democrats needed to defeat Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat in the general election,'' the Kansas senator said.
Brownback, a practicing Roman Catholic, ended his White House bid after spending more money than he raised amid dwindling support.
Some 60 million Americans consider themselves evangelical Christians, a fifth of the population of about 300 million, and candidates see them as a rich source of support.
Giuliani has courted them despite his social positions, having spoken at Robertson's Regent University in June and met with Brownback two weeks ago to try to win his support.
President George W. Bush, a Republican and Methodist who won two terms in the White House with strong backing from the religious right, will leave office in January 2009.
He received huge public support after the September 11 attacks but discontent over the Iraq war and lack of fiscal discipline has pushed down his stature among conservatives and sent his poll ratings to record lows. That has prompted many Republican candidates to distance themselves from Bush.
REUTERS NC KP2359