DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Two leading Christian conservatives split their presidential endorsements on Wednesday, with Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani winning surprise backing from evangelist Pat Robertson despite the former New York mayor’s support of abortion rights.
Republican candidate John McCain took the endorsement of Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a conservative who quit the race for the November 2008 presidential election last month.
Robertson, a one-time presidential candidate himself, gave his backing to Giuliani in Washington because he has stated his personal opposition to abortion and his willingness to appoint conservative Supreme Court judges like Chief Justice John Roberts.
“He understands the need for a conservative judiciary,” said Robertson, who founded the influential Christian Coalition and a religious broadcasting empire. “We have some patterns that he said he will follow. That’s what he’s told the American people and I believe him.”
Giuliani has led the field for the Republican nomination for the presidential election but conservatives have questioned his support of abortion rights, gay rights and gun control, as well as his two divorces. Some even have raised the possibility of backing a third-party candidate.
Instead of those hot-button issues, Robertson said the most important concern for him was fighting “Islamic terrorists” and that Giuliani’s performance during the September 11 attacks in 2001 showed he was best suited to deal with the threat.
McCain, an Arizona senator who has had an uneasy relationship with conservative Christians, took a step toward bolstering his right flank with the backing of Brownback.
Brownback, a Roman Catholic, ended his White House bid after spending more money than he raised amid dwindling support.
“John McCain is the only candidate who can rally the Reagan coalition of conservatives, independents and conservative Democrats needed to defeat Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat in the general election,” the Kansas senator said.
McCain tried to squeeze the maximum advantage out of the endorsement by traveling across Iowa with Brownback in tow, holding news conferences in key cities.
Iowa is the first of the state-by-state battles to choose the Democratic and Republican candidates who will face off in the presidential election on November 4 of next year.
“Sam Brownback is a man of faith and compassion whose integrity and unwavering commitment to protecting the dignity of human life, both born and unborn, has been an inspiration to me,” McCain said.
The endorsements came as a blow to former governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who trail Giuliani in national polls but have won support from family-values voters both in early voting state Iowa and across the country.
In Waterloo, Iowa, Huckabee shrugged off the news and said the endorsements were an attempt by Giuliani and McCain to compete with him for the evangelical vote. He said even the improbable matchup of Giuliani and Robertson was no surprise.
“In politics nothing surprises me anymore. There have been a lot of surprises but the surprise I’m looking for is going to happen on the night of January 3 when we’ll have a great victory,” the former Arkansas governor told reporters.
Some 60 million Americans consider themselves evangelical Christians, a fifth of the population of about 300 million, and candidates see them as a rich source of support.
Giuliani has courted them despite his social positions, having spoken at Robertson’s Regent University in June and met with Brownback two weeks ago to try to win his support.
President George W. Bush, a Republican and Methodist who won two terms in the White House with strong backing from the religious right, will leave office in January 2009.
Bush received huge public support after the September 11 attacks but discontent over the Iraq war and lack of fiscal discipline has pushed down his stature among conservatives and sent his poll ratings to record lows. That has prompted many Republican candidates to distance themselves from Bush.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; Editing by John O’Callaghan)
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