DALLAS, Oct 6 (Reuters) Broad support from US religious conservatives remains an elusive prize for the top Republican candidates in the White House race and there is even talk of a third party candidate to fly the right's flag.
The so-called ''Religious Right,'' mostly white evangelical Protestants who comprise a key Republican base, have been largely uninspired by the party's top-tier contenders who are locked in a tough race to represent the party in the 2008 presidential election.
They are especially disgruntled with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, the current leader, who supports abortion and gay rights -- positions which are anathema to the movement.
Their alarm at the prospect of a Giuliani candidacy was underlined last weekend when a meeting of heavyweight social conservatives in Salt Lake City mooted the idea of backing a third party candidate if he gets the Republican crown.
''It was more a statement of principle than a declaration of intent. If the Republican Party puts up a pro-abortion candidate that will be a line we will not cross,'' said attendee Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, a conservative lobby group.
James Dobson, founder of the conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family and one of the most influential voices in the movement, also attended the meeting.
A third party candidate under the banner of religious social conservatism would cut into the Republican vote and could ensure victory for the Democrats, analysts said.
If Giuliani were chosen as the Republican candidate, many religious conservatives may just not vote at all, they said.
''There is no plausible scenario where a Republican will be elected president without strong support from religious conservatives,'' said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
''It could be a third party or religious conservatives staying home. Either way, the Republican is doomed,'' he said.
Credited with helping secure two White House terms for George W Bush, the Religious Right is known for getting the conservative vote out for Republicans on election day.
UP FOR GRABS Wooing this base could make a huge difference in a Republican candidate's fortunes in the nomination race, which begins with state-by-state contexts in January, and its support is so far uncommitted.
''There is no unified Christian conservative block right now behind any candidate,'' said Wilson.
A Republican could conceivably take the nomination without this block -- but having it on side would be a huge boost.
Religious conservatives are a big force in the early voting state of Iowa, far less in New Hampshire.
Giuliani's success to date -- he currently leads the 2008 Republican field in national opinion polls -- also shows the limits of the movement's influence.
''Social conservatives are not large enough to dictate who the Republican nominee will be, but if they were to unite behind a candidate that would be a big step toward the nomination,'' said University of Akron political scientist John Green, a noted expert on religion and politics in America.
The two contenders who sing most consistently from the Religious Right's hymn sheet, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, lack prominent profiles, although the latter did finish second at a straw poll in Iowa.
''Candidates who fit their agenda like Brownback and Huckabee are not very well known so there is not a clear viable candidate that social conservatives can rally behind. And they are all trying to get a piece of their support because it is very much up for grabs,'' said Green.
Reuters SKB RS1817