Trying to mend ties to his Christian conservative base, House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Saturday condemned abortion, religious persecution and trial lawyers playing “litigation lottery” with tobacco lawsuits.
He was a featured speaker at the Christian Coalition’s “Road to Victory” conference that drew five other Republicans mulling presidential bids - Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri.
The House speaker, once the darling of the conservative movement, promised to pass the so-called partial-birth abortion ban again and dare President Clinton to veto it again.
“I hope … the president will reverse his position and recognize how morally wrong it is,” Gingrich said, drawing polite applause from 2,000 staunch anti-abortion activists.
Other speakers spoke with more outrage and emotion - and received more rousing receptions.
Forbes, whose fuzzy stance on abortion hurt his 1996 presidential bid, told the anti-abortion crowd, “Remember, life begins at conception and ends at natural death.”
Keyes, a failed 1996 candidate, shouted to the audience, “Stop killing the babies.”
Ashcroft, a former Missouri governor, salted the sparse late-night crowd with young supporters. They jumped to their feet when he said, “We must end the mindless slaying and brutality of abortion.”
In keeping with the conference’s pro-family theme, Gingrich said any government-backed settlement with tobacco companies also should include crackdowns on teenage drug and alcohol use.
Saying he was shocked by the size of legal fees in an $11.3 billion settlement by the state of Florida, Gingrich predicted that Congress would require attorneys to account for hours they billed their clients in lawsuits against tobacco companies.
“This is not going to be a litigation lottery for the enrichment of lawyers,” he said.
Gingrich faced a skeptical audience. Interviews with these staunch Christian conservatives revealed that while Gingrich is still respected - if not loved - for engineering the Republican takeover of Washington, he has disappointed them.
They said Gingrich too often talks about Washington process instead of moral values, seeks consensus with President Clinton and drags Republicans into lopsided fights - such as his opposition to the disaster relief bill.
“Basically, he’s held in high esteem,” said Bill Beckman, a golf club maker from Lake Mills, Wis. “It’s just that we sometimes want to say, ‘Come on, Newt, take off the silk gloves and put on the boxing gloves.”’
Sitting across from Beckman, Cheri Reinke of Douglasville, Ga., said of her fellow Georgian, “I think he’s kind of taken a step back. I’m very disappointed. He came on strong but he hasn’t managed to do what he said he would do.”
Coalition founder Pat Robertson set the tone Friday, when he told an opening-night crowd that the Republican Congress is “fixated on process” and have “lost their direction.”
Randy Tate, the organization’s new executive director, also had harsh words for the GOP leadership. “They are not addressing the issues that are important to our folks.”
It is not easy to put a finger on what bothers Christian Coalition members about Gingrich. He supports most of their legislative package - banning partial-birth abortions, allowing federal money to pay for private school tuition and a fight against religious persecution.
“We are going to advocate it and be for it,” Gingrich said of a bill that could lead to sanctions against countries that persecute Christians.