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« Light Morning | Blog Home Page | Martinez Stepping Down Today »

At FRC, Searching For A Giuliani Alternative

Speaking to a mostly full room at the Family Research Council's Washington Briefing today, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson made every effort to hit the socially conservative group's top issues, and to set himself up as the conservative alternative in the Republican presidential contest. Still, with a cheering section of Thompson fans waving signs, the candidate elicited just one standing ovation, and many in attendance were not completely impressed.

Thompson repeatedly asserted his conservative record during eight years in the Senate, stressing his consistency, an implicit shot at front-runners Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. "That's who I was then, that's who I am today, and that's the kind of president I would be," Thompson said.

Conservative leaders gave optimistic reviews of the speech. "Senator Thompson helped himself here today," said Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate and top voice in religious political circles. "I think he did well. He's got a solid conservative message," agreed FRC chief Tony Perkins.

But rank and file social conservatives were less impressed. Russell May, of Virginia, who attended the forum with his wife, is not sold on Thompson just yet. "At this moment, I don't think of any area where I disagree with him," he said, adding "I would not necessarily place him above other Republican candidates." "I wouldn't necessarily say that he is the most charismatic of the presidential candidates," added David Gruver, of North Carolina.

Gruver, like many, is waiting for more details from Thompson. "He'll have to take substantial positions on issues that are important to people who are conservatives." Thompson tried to assuage criticism that he brings less substance to the race than style, offering his views on a number of issues Christian conservatives find important. Calling government overspending a moral issue, Thompson said he would end the practice of passing debt on to the next generation; he reminded the audience that he fought for the Defense of Marriage Act; he criticized a Maine school district for offering birth control pills to some middle school students; and he told the audience that after seeing a sonogram of his daughter, "my heart is now fully engaged with my head." "No legislation will pass my desk that funds or supports [abortion] without my veto," he promised.

Thompson, like other candidates, placed a high premium on judges. Noting that President Bush asked him to shepherd Chief Justice John Roberts' nomination through the Senate, Thompson promised to appoint similarly conservative judges. "I believe he will go down as one of the great cheif justices. We just need more of 'em," Thompson said. "Judge Roberts proved that quality will win out in the end." He also promised to fight for his nominees. "That is a fight we can have with the American people, for the American people, all day long. And if we're persistent, we can win."

Values conservatives milling around the Washington Hilton seemed to be searching for a candidate to represent them against the moderate Giuliani, and Thompson, along with Romney, is one who might slake that thirst. "At the end of the day, I suspect one of those two will end up emerging as the main alternative to Giuliani," Bauer said. Romney takes his turn in front of the crowd tonight, in a speech his campaign says will focus on ending unwed pregnancies.

Giuliani, who addresses the crowd tomorrow, looms large over the summit today. While his previous positions put him at odds with attendees, "he realizes that this is an element of the conservative movement that he has to deal with, and I think he realized he could not be the only Republican candidate not to come out," Perkins said. Still, he added, "I don't think Giuliani is at risk of winning the straw poll tomorrow."

Some conservatives, though, urged values voters to keep an open mind. Rep. Jeanne Schmidt, an Ohio Republican, told the audience to stand up for their candidate in the primary, but "stand behind the person that is at least the better alternative" in the general election. Otherwise, she warned, "that woman" might occupy the White House.