WASHINGTON — With some leading social conservatives threatening to boycott the Republican Party if Rudolph W. Giuliani wins the presidential nomination, the former New York City mayor sought Saturday to assure activists in this crucial GOP voting bloc that they have "absolutely nothing to fear from me."
Giuliani told more than 2,000 evangelical activists that despite his support for abortion rights and other liberal views, Christians would have a voice in his administration, and that, though he has not always been comfortable discussing it in public, faith "is at the core of who I am."
"I come to you today as I would if I were your president, with an open mind and an open heart," Giuliani said. "And all I ask is that you do the same."
Although Giuliani was interrupted several times by applause and some stood to clap as he concluded his 40-minute address, it was clear that he remained a distrusted figure among those gathered here from across the country.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, an evangelical organization and primary sponsor of the annual Values Voter Summit, called Giuliani's speech sincere but said he could not ignore the difference of opinion on abortion.
"It's not something that can be paved over easily," Perkins said, adding that he had not changed his mind about looking elsewhere for a candidate should Giuliani win the GOP nomination. "My position remains the same, as I think it does for a number of pro-life conservatives -- that we draw a line that we will not cross in supporting a pro-abortion-rights candidate."
Giuliani finished eighth out of nine GOP candidates in a straw poll of more than 5,000 people who attended the conference or voted online. The winner was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, followed closely by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, though it's not clear how meaningful the poll was.
Huckabee, whose speech Saturday drew some of the most enthusiastic response of any candidate, won a majority of the 952 votes cast by those who attended, while thousands of votes cast via the Internet gave Romney a slightly higher overall total and saw little-known libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas finish third. Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, once viewed as the conservatives' best hope in a GOP field dominated by moderates, finished fourth after a lackluster Friday speech.
Saturday's appearance by Giuliani -- the most anticipated event of the weekend conference -- marked a crucial moment for his presidential campaign and for the conservative evangelical movement.
National polls consistently put the former mayor at the front of the Republican pack and show he would make a formidable general election candidate, the result of his performance after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and his focus on national security. But Giuliani has faced skepticism about his ability to win caucuses and primaries decided by conservative voters who do not share his views on gay rights, gun control, immigration and abortion, and who may not want to vote for a thrice-married Roman Catholic who is an occasional churchgoer.
Just three years ago, evangelical leaders such as Perkins and James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family claimed credit for securing President Bush's reelection and seemed at the height of their power in national politics.
And, according to a recent study by the watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, evangelical groups continue to raise tens of millions of dollars and organize churches in anticipation of playing a major role in the 2008 election.
But this year they have failed to find a favorite candidate or halt Giuliani as he appears to be pursuing a strategy of peeling off some religious conservatives.
Giuliani strategists contend that most Republican primary voters would be willing to support a candidate who does not oppose abortion. And, in the early voting state of South Carolina, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey last month found Giuliani winning 1 in 5 voters who attend church at least weekly, far ahead of Romney, a Mormon who despite his past support for gay and abortion rights has changed his views and is campaigning as a hard-core conservative.
Still, Giuliani strategists say the candidate cannot win the nomination or the general election without support from many evangelicals.
On Saturday, Giuliani premiered a speech almost devoid of the 9/11 references that have dominated his campaign rhetoric to date, but replete with self-criticism and acknowledgments of imperfection.
His goal Saturday, at least in part, was to curb talk of a third-party rebellion if he wins the nomination. And he sought to sow seeds of doubt about his chief rival, Romney, who ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002 as a moderate.
"Isn't it better that I tell you what I really believe, instead of pretending to change all of my positions to fit the prevailing winds?" Giuliani asked.