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Some of the nation’s most politically influential conservative Christians, alarmed by the prospect of a Republican presidential nominee who supports abortion rights, are considering backing a third-party candidate.
More than 40 Christian conservatives attended a meeting Saturday in Salt Lake City to discuss the possibility, and planned more gatherings on how they should move forward, according to Richard A. Viguerie, the direct-mail expert and longtime conservative activist.
Rudy Giuliani, who supports abortion rights and gay rights, leads in national polls of the Republican presidential candidates. Campaigning in New Jersey on Monday, Giuliani brushed aside talk of an upstart effort by religious conservatives.
“I’m working on one party right now — the Republican Party,” Giuliani said. “I believe we are reaching out very, very well to Republicans. The emphasis is on fiscal conservatism, which brings Republicans together.”
Other participants in the meeting included James Dobson, founder of the Focus on the Family evangelical ministry in Colorado Springs, Colo., and, according to Viguerie, Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a conservative policy group in Washington.
Dobson attended the meeting, but is not yet participating in any planning for a third party, said Gary Schneeberger, a spokesman for Focus on the Family Action. Dobson and others spoke out against the idea at the meeting, even though both major parties could nominate candidates who back abortion rights and other policies that conservative Christians oppose, Schneeberger said.
A spokesman for Perkins did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Viguerie would not give specifics of the proposal or reveal additional names of participants, but said President Bush “would not have been elected in ’04 without the people in that room.”
“There is such jaundiced feelings about any promises or commitments from any Republican leaders,” he said in a phone interview. “You could almost cut the anger and the frustration with a knife in that room it’s so strong. Because they don’t know what else to do, they’re talking third party.”
A spokesman for the Republican National Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
The participants were in Salt Lake City for a separate meeting of the secretive Council for National Policy, a group of conservative business, religious and political leaders that was co-founded years ago by Tim LaHaye, author of the “Left Behind” series of books. Vice President Dick Cheney flew into the city Friday to address the group, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Christian conservatives, who hold considerable sway in the Republican Party, have been deeply unhappy about the field of GOP presidential candidates.
Dobson has said he wouldn’t support Giuliani, calling the former New York mayor an “unapologetic supporter of abortion on demand.” Dobson has also rejected former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson as wrong on social issues, and wouldn’t back John McCain because of the Arizona senator’s opposition to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Viguerie said conservatives “are still open” to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, but said, “we haven’t seen anything that guarantees that he will hold to the positions that he’s articulating.” Romney has been questioned about his record on gay rights.
However, the proposal to consider a third-party candidate comes from anger that the Republicans whom Christians have helped elect for decades have failed to act on policy issues important to evangelicals on abortion, marriage and school prayer.
“Conservatives have been treated like a mistress as long as any of us can remember,” Viguerie said. “They’ll have lots of private meetings with us, tell us how much they appreciate it and how much they value us, but if you see me on the street please don’t speak with me.”
A third-party run would be a long shot, requiring millions of dollars and challenges to ballot access. Such a bid could prove disastrous for the GOP by splitting the vote.
Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, was not at the meeting. But he said no one floating the idea of a third party thinks there’s much chance the candidate would win. He considers the proposal a reaction to “moguls of the Republican establishment” who think conservative Christians will support the GOP no matter what.
“A lot of them won’t hold their nose and do it,” Land said.
Associated Press Writer Angela Delli Santi in Dennis Township, N.J., contributed to this report.