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CAMPAIGN '08: GOD, GAMING IN THE POLITICAL MIX

Evangelicals not on same page

South Carolina voters debate the values and electability of Romney and Huckabee. The rift may boost McCain.

January 18, 2008|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

GREENVILLE, S.C — .-- The Christian heart of the Republican Party beats fiercely on the broad boulevard where one finds both the gated entrance to Bob Jones University and the headquarters of His Radio network, home to an AM Christian station and a sister music station, "FM With Love From Jesus."

But the two bastions of Southern evangelism mirrored the split in the ranks of conservative voters before the state's Republican primary Saturday.

Host Tony Beam of the network's "Christian Talk" became a warrior for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee from the moment he turned on his microphone at 6 a.m. Thursday.

"We need a leader in America who has the core value system that's built on the eternal truths of the Bible," Beam told listeners. "We need a lighthouse, a guiding force to get us in the right direction."

Prominent conservative and Bob Jones University dean Robert Taylor made an opposing pitch on the university's radio station earlier in the week. "Mitt Romney is the only candidate who shares our values and can win in November," Taylor said. "That's why it's so important that conservatives rally around him."

Since Ronald Reagan was anointed by the Christian right here in 1980, Republican candidates who have won South Carolina have gone on to win the presidency, giving rise to the maxim that the road to the White House runs through the state.

Evangelicals have an opportunity Saturday to remind party leaders about their record as kingmakers. But conservative leaders have turned against each other in a split that may further undermine the political power of evangelicals who, with the decline of the once-formidable Christian Coalition of America and other groups, have lost influence within the GOP.

"There's a battle for the heart and the soul of the Republican Party," Beam said. "I'm very concerned."

Taylor, like other prominent activists on the right, said Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, had a better chance of beating a Democratic candidate in the general election than Huckabee or Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator also seeking to appeal to evangelicals.

"Romney has the temperament and the talent," said Taylor, dean of the college of arts and sciences at Bob Jones University. "There's a gridlock in Congress, and we need an executive who can function as a CEO."

In October, Bob Jones III, chancellor of the institution that bears his grandfather's name, set off a firestorm within the evangelical community when he endorsed Romney, who is a Mormon.

Though he had previously referred to Mormonism as a cult, Jones told the Greenville News at the time of the endorsement that he thought Romney stood the best chance of beating Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the leading Democratic candidate.

Huckabee supporters said people such as Jones and Taylor had struck a Faustian deal -- trading the soul of the party for power.

After governing in Massachusetts, Romney changed his position on key issues, including abortion. He moved closer to conservative values.

Jim DeMint, one of South Carolina's two Republican senators and a conservative Christian, supports Romney, as does Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the Moral Majority, and James Bopp Jr., an antiabortion activist.

"He has done something that we must convince many other Americans to do; he has changed his mind," DeMint wrote in a Jan. 8 endorsement letter. "Gov. Romney is opposed to same-sex marriages and civil unions. . . . He also rejects government promotion of the homosexual lifestyle."

But Huckabee supporters said the changes of heart were a matter of expediency.

"If you believe it's a genuine conversion, I'd say amen to that. But I'm skeptical," Beam said.

In Greenville last spring, Romney courted evangelical leaders, meeting key people at a fireside chat in a private home.

He also appeared before a boardroom of notable conservatives who grilled him about his faith and his views on abortion. Many said they remained unconvinced.

The fracture among state Republicans can be gauged in part by endorsements.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona is backed by his longtime ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and has received the most endorsements from state legislators.

Former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, a social conservative who helped George W. Bush derail McCain here in 2000, now campaigns for Huckabee with Mike Campbell, the scion of a powerful political family and Huckabee's state chairman.

With populist rhetoric and a preacher's delivery, Huckabee campaigned in Greenville this week, supporting constitutional amendments on abortion and marriage.

"I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God," he said. His audiences often yelled "yes" and "amen."

Later, at a rally in Lexington, S.C., children gave him their Bibles to autograph.

"He's got the rhetorical skills of [Barack] Obama. He connects with people; he's glib and relaxed," said David Woodard, a professor of political science at Clemson University in South Carolina. "But that doesn't necessarily translate into votes."

Observers say the evangelical split is likely to profit one candidate in particular: McCain. He has proven his ability to attract independent voters in New Hampshire and could benefit from South Carolina's open primary, as well as from its large population of veterans.

McCain has the support of 29% of prospective Republican voters in the state, according to a Clemson University poll this week, putting him ahead of Huckabee at 22%, Romney at 13% and Thompson at 10%.

Despite an endorsement by televangelist Pat Robertson, Rudolph W. Giuliani remains largely ignored by Christian conservatives, the poll said.

--

louise.roug@latimes.com

Times researcher Vicki Gallay contributed to this report.

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