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Report From the Values Summit: Thompson? Maybe....Not

They left their pews and pulpits to come to Washington with the goal of united political action, to settle on a presidential candidate who can become the obvious choice of evangelical voters. But if there is a central problem for the thousands of Christian activists who gathered at the sprawling Washington Hilton conference center today it is this: no one can seem to agree on who that is.

Tony Perkins, the outspoken head of the Family Research Council, which organized the event, predicted today that religious leaders and activists would leave here this weekend having narrowed their choices to three. (The results of a straw ballot will be announced Saturday afternoon). But even that seemed unlikely, judging from the response to the presidential hopefuls who made their case today.

"Everyone has a flaw. I guess it's going to be what's considered the least liability," said Victoria Cobb, who runs the Family Foundation in Virginia.

Among the attendees and in speeches by the candidates, the main target was former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose speech Saturday morning is much-anticipated in these halls. A handout by Friends of Fred Thompson accused Giuliani of being "vocally pro-choice," supporting taxpayer funded abortions, and signing domestic partnership laws. Gary Bauer, who ran for president in 2000, said Giuliani has a lot of work to do in these halls.

"Giuliani is the candidate for whom its hardest to close the deal. if nominated, he would be, by his own admission, a pro-choice candidate in a pro-life party," Bauer said. "The barrier he's got to pass is he good enough to cause people's hearts to beat fast and get them out there to stuff envelopes and ring doorbells and work the precincts."

The activists and evangelical voters appeared to tolerate Fred Thompson's speech this morning, offering polite applause for his pledges to oppose abortion and gay marriage. And then Thompson offered this promise: that in the first hour as president, he would "go into the Oval Office, close the door and pray for the wisdom to do the right thing."

The crowd leapt to their feet, applauding and yelling their approval to a smiling Thompson, who -- it seems -- had finally pushed the right button.

CBS VIDEO | Christian evangelicals make up nearly 25 percent of the electorate, but are deeply frustrated because they cannot find a conservative candidate to support. CBS's Chip Reid reports.

But even then, it wasn't hard to find a critic.

"That sounds great, but is it real? Or is he acting? That's what you don't know," said Stu Mendelsohn, a Virginia attorney and former Republican county supervisor in Fairfax.

Cobb, whose group does not endorse candidates, was also down on Thompson after seeing him for the first time. "What a sleeper," she said. "Not as charismatic as you'd think an actor could pull off."

Many attendees with "Mike Huckabee" buttons roamed the halls, showing their support for the former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister, who has made several eloquent statements about the importance of religion. "I like the way [Huckabee] expresses himself. He has the same conservative values I do," said Joyce Griffin, an evangelical voter who came from what she described as "serious country," 30 miles outside of Savannah, Georgia.

State leaders from several right-to-life groups said discussions continue about a group endorsement of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, in the hopes of lifting up his ill-funded campaign. But that effort was described as far-from certain as many of the state leaders said they were nursing disappointment form the expected departure of Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback from the GOP contest.

"Personally, I always thought that Sam Brownback held the closest, totally consistent views," said John Jakubczyk, an attorney and past president of Arizona Right-to-Life. He blamed the expectations game on destroying his candidacy.

"Everyone says, 'oh we love Sam, but he can't win.' And that became a self-fulfilling prophecy and he could never get any traction," Jakubczyk said.

Like others, Jakubczyk said he has not yet moved on to another candidate, but knows full-well who he doesn't like: former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or Giuliani.

"Oh, I know that Giuliani won't happen," he said.

Romney's no better, he said: "Romney's got lots of problems. He's from Massachusetts. He was governor of Massachusetts," he said. "Is Massachusetts a better place because Romney was governor? No. No. I have lot's of problems with Mitt."

But Jakubczyk was more optimistic than some who gathered here today. He said the meeting will serve as a wake-up call to religious voters and evangelicals across the country. "A meeting like this helps to energize and remind us that we've got to get back on track," he said. "Unfortunately, the last couple of years, after 2006, there were a lot of people who got depressed, got despondent, got upset, got worried."

"Let's not be depressed," he concluded. "Let's just get to work."

--Michael D. Shear

By Washington Post Editor  |  October 19, 2007; 2:17 PM ET
Categories:  Candidates  
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