WASHINGTON (MCT) Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and a convert to the anti-abortion cause, claimed a slim victory Saturday in a straw poll of Christian conservative voters, thanks largely to organizational efforts to pull in online votes.
Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and a former Baptist pastor, placed a close second with Romney claiming 1,595 votes and Huckabee 1,565. However, among votes cast on-site at the Values Voter Summit, Huckabee, the clear favorite in a hall full of conservative voters, claimed more than half of the total ballots.
More significantly, perhaps, the results of this conference of Christian conservatives serve as a stark rebuke to the Republican Party's front-running candidate for president in national polling, Rudolph Giuliani. The former mayor of New York, alone among his party's candidates, supports abortion rights for women which many among the Christian right consider a deal-breaker for him.
Giuliani, who appeared at the summit Saturday, finished eighth among nine candidates competing, with just 107 votes out of 5,776 cast.
With evangelical Protestants accounting for nearly one in four of all Republican voters, the message coming from the two-day Values Voter Summit sponsored by the Family Research Council is clear: Many of the party's "social conservatives" are more concerned about aligning with a candidate who advances their causes of abolishing abortion and enshrining marriage as a union of man and woman in the Constitution than in supporting a candidate such as Giuliani who may prove more electable.
Yet the results of the straw-poll may say less about the actual political prospects for either Romney or Huckabee in a crowded Republican contest.
"I think, clearly, there is a consensus building around one, two or maybe three candidates," said Tony Perkins, Family Research Council president, hoping this straw poll will help social conservatives start to rally around one candidate.
The winner, by the numbers, had faced a polite but relatively unenthusiastic reception here.
"As president," Romney said Friday night, "I will work with the people in this room, as I have for the past four years, to champion a federal marriage amendment to protect marriage as the union of a man and a woman."
Romney, pledging to be "a pro-life president," promised to appoint judges who won't legislate from the bench.
While 1,537 people inside the ballroom of the Washington Hilton cast ballots, so did many more people able to join the Family Research Council online and cast votes.
The Romney campaign had waged a concerted effort to enlist online votes from supporters. Indeed the results in the hall were received with silence Saturday, another clear sign that Huckabee actually had won the house.
That was borne out in the numbers: In the on-site vote, Huckabee collected 488 more than half of the 952 cast, and far and away more than any other candidate. Romney collected just 99 on-site.
With 5,776 ballots overall cast, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas placed third, with 865, and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson placed fourth, with 564.
The overall totals were: Romney: 1,595, Huckabee: 1,565, Paul: 865, Thompson: 564, Sam Brownback, who has quit the race: 297, Duncan Hunter: 140, Tom Tancredo: 133, Giuliani: 107 and John McCain: 81.
Inside the hall, it was Huckabee's message that resonated most clearly.
"There are many who will seek our support," Huckabee said Saturday. "But it's important that people sing from their hearts and don't merely lip synch to our songs. . . .
"There were times . . . when things amongst us were negotiable," he said. "But some things are not negotiable, the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage. . . . Let us never sacrifice our principles for anybody's politics not now, not ever."
Huckabee, a former pastor in Pine Bluff and Texarkana, Ark., also served as president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention before his election as lieutenant governor and then governor.
And before Huckabee arrived at the voters' summit here, supporters handed out leaflets: "Do Not Compromise God's Values."
"I come today as one not who comes to you, but as one who comes from you," Huckabee said. "You are my roots."
Still, Giuliani's appearance Saturday provided the highest drama of a convention-like assembly of voters who opened their sessions with song and prayer and made it clear what issues concern them most in their straw poll, the No. 1 issue: "life."
Giuliani, in a quiet, conversational appeal to a crowd that listened, at first, in silence, suggested that there is more that unites them than divides them.
Gradually breaking the ice, Giuliani promised to limit abortion as much as possible and appoint conservative judges "in the mold" of Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Justice John Roberts Jr.. By the end, the audience was applauding.
"People of good conscience come to different conclusions about whether abortions should be legal in some circumstances," he said. 'But you and I and, I believe, almost all Americans, share the same goal a country without abortion, achieved by changing the minds and hearts of people.
"You and I know that I am not a perfect person," Giuliani said . "We lose trust in political leaders not because they are imperfect after all, they're human. We lose trust with them when they're not honest with us. . . . We may not always agree. . . . But I'll give you reason to trust me, and you'll always know where I stand."
Yet, many of these voters consider his position unacceptable.
"I could never vote for him under any circumstance," Chris Carmouche, of Lorton, Va., said of Giuliani. "He's a RINO Republican in name only. What's unforgivable are his positions on abortion and the family."
Both Joanne and Steve Landman, of Bryn Mawr, Pa., consider Giuliani's stance on abortion "a big problem." Yet the candidate did make some headway here, Joanne Landman said: "I appreciate his candor. It endeared me a little to his personality."
And both said, should Giuliani win the party's nomination in 2008, they will be compelled to vote for the Republican.