WASHINGTON – Rudy Giuliani tried to find peace Saturday with a restless bloc of the Republican Party, telling religious conservatives not to fear him for his stand on issues such as abortion or expect he would change purely for political advantage.
The GOP presidential candidate won praise for simply showing up before an audience that has been casting about for the best social conservative in the Republican field. But former governors Mitt Romney, of Massachusetts, and Mike Huckabee, of Arkansas, shared the limelight with the former New York mayor, handily winning the top two spots in a straw poll of “values voters” conducted by the conservative Family Research Council.
Giuliani sought common ground with Christian conservatives by casting himself as an imperfect man who has asked for guidance through prayer. He recalled crossing himself during his first day of law school after 16 years of attending Catholic schools.
He offered assurances that despite his support for abortion rights, he would seek to lower the number of abortions. He pledged that if elected, he would appoint conservative judges, support school choice and insist on victory in Iraq – all issues important to the audience at the Values Voter Summit.
The straw poll, conducted online and at the conference, placed Giuliani in eighth place, second to last. The top vote-getter was Romney, who unlike Giuliani, worked actively to encourage supporters to vote for him. Huckabee was close behind, but won overwhelmingly among voters who cast the ballots onsite at the event.
In a 40-minute speech that drew respectful applause, Giuliani invoked, as he often does, Ronald Reagan’s admonition that “my 80 percent friend is not my 20 percent enemy.”
“My belief in God and reliance on his guidance is at the core of who I am, I can assure you of that,” Giuliani said. “But isn’t it better for me to tell you what I believe rather than change my positions to fit the prevailing wind?”
It was among his better received lines.
“He won simply by coming,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, which sponsored the three-day conference. “He helped himself; he certainly didn’t lose any ground.”
But his reception was in stark contrast to the ovations for Huckabee, a one-time Baptist preacher who is a sentimental favorite of many religious conservatives.
Huckabee mixed humor, biblical references and the rhythms of a man used to the pulpit as he implored the crowd to put values above politics and not make expedient decisions.
He called for a constitutional amendment declaring marriage to be between a man and a woman and decried the “holocaust of liberalized abortion.”
“We do not have the right to move the standards of God to meet cultural norms. We need to move the cultural norms to meet God’s standards,” he said, bringing the crowd to its feet.
Their GOP rivals, in speeches Friday, courted the conservative religious voters, who have a tradition of influence in elections.
Romney has been assiduously courting social conservatives, trying to erase doubts over his Mormon faith and his past support of abortion rights.
Giuliani’s speech was an important milestone in his search for the Republican presidential nomination. He supports abortion rights and has moderate views on immigration and gay rights. Married three times and distanced from his son and daughter, Giuliani made a rare reference to his personal troubles.
“You and I know that I’m not a perfect person,” he said. “I’ve made mistakes in my life, but I’ve always done the best that I could to learn from them.”
His front-runner status in the crowded GOP 2008 field has dismayed some social conservative leaders. Some even have contemplated supporting a third-party candidate if Giuliani is the Republican nominee.
“People of good conscience reach different conclusions about whether abortions should be legal in certain circumstances,” Giuliani said while vowing to increase adoptions.
“We may not always agree,” he said. “I don’t always agree with myself. But I will give you reason to trust me.”
Giuliani did not mention the subject of gay marriage in his remarks. Gary Bauer, a Christian activist and former presidential candidate, said Giuliani should have addressed the issue. But, he added, Giuliani helped himself by offering assurances on other fronts.