ARLINGTON, Texas, Nov 28 (Reuters) Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is doing surprisingly well among conservatives in his bid for the Republican Party's presidential nomination, but there is one group that will not countenance voting for him.
For a dedicated core of mainly religious voters, abortion is the single issue that will decide their vote, and for them Giuliani fails the test.
Sally Morris is one such person. A devout Catholic armed with an ultrasound device, she works as a nurse at a clinic near Dallas that aims to persuade pregnant women not to abort their fetuses.
''I call this one 'Baby in prayer,''' she says as she points to an image of a 14-week fetus recently captured on her ultrasound, which shows its hands clasped as if in prayer.
Part of a program called ''Option Ultrasound,'' sponsored by the conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family, the clinic works on the principle that women who view images of their fetus are less likely to have an abortion.
Eighty-nine percent of the women who visit decide to carry their child to term, executive director Becky Hyde said.
Morris, Hyde and others who work at the clinic consider themselves to be on the front lines of America's abortion wars, which threaten to divide the Republican Party.
Giuliani is the front runner in the race for the party's nomination for the presidential election in November 2008. His position supporting abortion rights sits well with socially moderate Republicans, but puts him deeply at odds with much of the party's conservative Christian base.
Some see Giuliani's success as a sign that abortion is losing some of its bite as a political issue. A poll by the Pew Research Center last month found that among white evangelical Protestants, abortion was a priority for 53 per cent of those surveyed, below issues like terrorism and the economy, down from 60 per cent in August of 2004.
But for a dedicated core, such as those involved in Option Ultrasound, abortion trumps all other issues.
''I lean Republican but I won't vote for Rudy,'' said Vickie Adams, a born-again Southern Baptist who is in charge of fundraising for the center.
In past elections, the Republican Party has used opposition to abortion to get this base to the polls, and it may find it must now stick to this tune if it is to rely on them in 2008.
''I think the Republican Party will want to be very careful.
The pro-life movement has been the centerpiece of the Republican coalition that has won most of the presidential elections over the past 30 years,'' said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.
Focus on the Family founder and influential conservative James Dobson has said he will vote for a third party candidate rather than a Republican who supports abortion rights, although he has said such a route would be a last resort.
All of the other Republican presidential hopefuls have taken anti-abortion positions -- underscoring how divisive the issue could prove if Giuliani wins the nominiation.
COMPARED TO SLAVERY Raising the stakes, many religious conservatives cast the abortion debate in terms of the anti-slavery movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, saying abortion is the great moral question of today.
''We realised the errors of our ways on slavery and there is great hope that the nation will do the same for abortion,'' said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative lobby group with strong evangelical ties.
This is a cry taken up in particular by another Republican contender for the White House, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Like the anti-slavers, the anti-abortion movement is in for the long haul, focusing on the White House in a bid to put enough conservatives on the Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 decision that granted women the right to an abortion.
Conservative Christians compare Roe vs. Wade to the Dred Scott decision in 1857, which ruled that no black person, free or slave, could become a US citizen. Both decisions revolve around how a person is defined, and for conservative Christians, life begins at conception.
Critics of conservative Christians contend that their opposition to abortion is less about life and more about a broader backlash against women's rights. And they note the support some conservative Christians gave for segregation.
Wilson, an expert on conservatives and the religious right, notes that the Republican Party itself owes its birth to the anti-slavery movement, coming together as a broad coalition in the 1850s to oppose the expansion of slavery.
''That's one of the reasons why much of the anti-abortion rank and file want the Republican Party to speak forcefully to what they regard as the most compelling moral issue of our time, which is abortion,'' Wilson said.
REUTERS SW KP0947