Republican presidential candidates looking to consolidate support among the base of their party left an important gathering in Washington today no closer to closing the deal.
Social conservatives came into this weekend's Values Voter Summit torn over which candidate to support in the rapidly approaching primary season. By time the event was over, and after all eight GOP candidates had spoken to the summit's approximately 2,000 attendees, it did not appear that any one of them had galvanized their support.
However, it does appear clear that the fight for these "values voters" is shaping up as a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee -- the winner of that fight likely to emerge as the conservative alternative to Rudy Giuliani, who leads the Republican race in national polls.
The results of the event's straw poll were especially telling: Of the 5,775 votes received at on-site voting kiosks, by mail, and online, Romney won 1,595, while Huckabee was only 30 votes behind, at 1,565.
But these baseline numbers don't tell the entire story. Voting online required only a nominal donation to the Family Research Council, the organization that ran the poll and the leading sponsor of this weekend's summit, held at the Hilton Washington. Candidates sent out appeals to their supporters to cast an online vote in the poll -- such votes turned out to generate about 94 percent of Romney's support.
Among people who actually paid to attend the conference, people FRC President Tony Perkins has called "influencers" within their communities and church congregations, the result was far different, and a decisive victory for Huckabee. Over 51 percent of those who voted at the conference chose the former Arkansas governor. Romney was a distant second, garnering just over 10 percent of the vote.
"Today's victory in the on-site contest is yet another indicator that I am the top choice of voters in America who are looking for a truly consistent, conservative candidate with a proven record of results and the vision to lead America forward," Huckabee said in a statement.
Perkins predicted that Huckabee, who also finished second to Romney at the Ames, Iowa straw poll in August, would see a benefit once attendees made their way back home from Washington. "I believe that Gov. Huckabee will get a significant bounce out of this," Perkins said, later adding that Huckabee could join the company of Romney, Giuliani and Fred Thompson at the front of the GOP pack.
"He could be a first-tier candidate," he said. "He has held his own, he's got a message, he's certainly got followers. I think he's come down here as a winner and a favorite out of this straw poll."
But other leaders within the evangelical movement are not sold on Huckabee, particularly Gary Bauer, head of American Values, one of the summit's co-sponsors. He said Huckabee, who raised only $1 million in the third quarter of the year, doesn't have the time or resources to compete with the top GOP candidates.
"I'm skeptical, I am," Bauer said. "I just don't see how you go from having $600,000 in the bank one year before the election and go on to leap-frog everybody else, beat Giuliani and then go on to beat Hillary Clinton. I just don't see it happening."
The divide on Huckabee's prospects between two allies like Perkins and Bauer is a fitting symbol for a movement that has proven highly influential in Republican politics since the 1980 election, but now is seeing its voice diminished, partly due to the inability of evangelical voters to coalesce around one candidate as they did with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and George W. Bush in 2000.
If the Christian right fails to rally around one candidate, it could provide an opening for Giuliani, whose support for abortion rights and moderate record on gay rights run counter to the central interests of evangelical voters - among conference attendees, those two issues were the only ones cited as "most important" by more than 10 percent in the straw poll.
Giuliani tried his best to smooth over relations with the crowd gathered at the summit, delivering a speech in which he emphasized his record of eliminating prostitution and pornography from Times Square as New York City mayor, his intention to appoint judges who would strictly interpret the Constitution, and his hardline stance against Islamic terrorism.
"I'm not going to pretend to you that I can be all things to all people," Giuliani said, acknowledging the policy differences between himself and the audience. "And you know that we have some areas of disagreement. But I believe we have many, many more areas of agreement. And the one thing you can count on with me is I'll always be honest with you. I will always listen to your ideas, I'll always take them into consideration, and I'll do the best I can to honestly tell you mine."
He was rewarded with a standing ovation -- however, so was every other candidate who spoke. He also came dangerously close to making a critical gaffe, nearly saying he wanted to "reduce adoptions and increase abortions" before catching himself at the last minute -- a moment that sent a wave of uneasy laughter throughout the audience. But perhaps most significantly, he made no references to his opinion on same-sex marriage.
"Big mistake," Bauer said afterward. "It was clearly a very significant oversight and it wouldn't have been that hard for him to handle it. He could have just said, 'I'll put strict constructionists on the [Supreme] Court. Let me explain to you what that means. My judges will not find a hidden right in the Constitution for men to marry men,' and this audience would have jumped to its feet and it would have been a very significant moment."
In the end, Huckabee and long-shot candidate Tom Tancredo, who spoke on Friday, were the only candidates to really rally the crowd. Huckabee, in a speech that contained as many Biblical references as it did policy points, drew cheers on multiple occasions. Even before he spoke, the mere mention of his name by the event's emcee prompted a response no other candidate received.
One candidate widely perceived as a disappointment was Thompson, who, before his entry into the race, was often hyped as the candidate social conservatives had been waiting for - a strong personality with a solid record who had the resources to compete and win. But a subdued, sometimes meandering speech left many in the crowd indifferent toward the former senator and TV actor. In the straw poll, he came in fourth, with just less than 10 percent of the vote.
"I was really wanting him to do really well, but I don't think he's organized," said Nancy Elmore of Belmont, N.C. "I don't think he's getting his organization together. Mitt Romney was so enthusiastic ... He seems to maybe have his act together."
The summit came amid reports that evangelical leaders would be meeting for the second time this month to discuss the possibility of backing a third-party candidate should Giuliani win the nomination. Though Perkins has indicated he would be open to that possibility, other leaders and attendees were sour on the idea.
"There's been some talk among conservative Christian leaders about starting a third party, but these things are just happening too late to have a viable, third-party, Christian-supported candidate by next November, so I really don't see it happening," said Martin Mawyer, president of the Christian Action Network. "Even if it does, it'll still give the presidency to the Democrat that's running because it's taking away that critical vote from the Republican. And a third party candidate is not going to win, so the Democrat is pretty much a shoe-in."
Bauer used his keynote speech on Friday night to dissuade those considering defecting to a third-party candidate. "My view is that's not the way to go," he said. "I am not going to turn over the party of Lincoln and Reagan to our political opponents. The evangelical movement has always been against suicide and, I'll tell you what, a third party is political suicide."
By David Miller