No one predicted that 2,000 conservative evangelicals would emerge Saturday from their two-day "Values Voters Summit" united behind one Republican presidential candidate. But clarity and consensus proved even more elusive than expected.
In fact, depending on who is making the argument, at least four "winners"—and, no, Ron Paul was not among them—emerged from the GOP's crowded field of nine candidates, all of whom spoke at the conference. Evangelical leaders came away saying that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson scored with the conservatives. Support among this segment of the evangelical base is clearly divided among the three.
But the unlikeliest "winner" may have been former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the bête noir of conservative evangelical leaders, whose humility—yes, we're still talking about Giuliani—and star power beguiled many who heard him speak early Saturday morning. Giuliani, who supports legalized abortion and opposes a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage, is no darling of this crowd, but he "won by showing up," said one leader and spoke their language—even though he didn't address all their issues.
"I don't agree with him on every issue, but I think he's a proven leader," said Jim Chamberlin, a retired teacher and principal from Springfield, Ohio. "I would certainly vote for him if he's the candidate."
Giuliani elegantly alluded to his divorces and personal tribulations by painting himself as reluctant to speak publicly about his faith because he often finds himself "failing to reach the ideal of my faith," noting, also, that he grew up in an environment where faith is considered private and separate from political life.
Giuliani, the national GOP front-runner, pointedly named every conservative judge on the U.S. Supreme Court—from Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas to John Roberts and Samuel Alito—when describing the kind of judges he would appoint to the high court.
"You have absolutely nothing to fear from me," he said. "I'll continue to extend my hand to you, and I hope you'll take it."
Most of these voters probably won't, unless they have to.
"He lost his horns, but there's no halo," says Tony Perkins, who heads the Family Research Council, which sponsored the evangelical gathering. Says Joyce Jenkins of Dayton, Ohio: "He avoided a real important subject—gays, which tells a lot." But Giuliani softened the ground with some evangelicals for a presidential run, perhaps with a running mate like Huckabee or Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who withdrew from the race last week.
The Huckabee campaign is claiming a big win out of the conference, with clearly the best-received speech and a second-pace finish to Romney in the event's straw poll. Tellingly, Huckabee finished first in the poll among voters who attended the conference, capturing more than 51 percent of the on-site votes, more than all the other candidates combined.
Even Perkins, who, like many dominant evangelical leaders including Gary Bauer and James Dobson, has expressed reservations about Huckabee's ability to raise money and move up in the polls, said he came away "more open to him."
"Mike Huckabee made the best speech I've ever heard made here," Perkins said. "He hit all the issues, was strong and passionate. He won over a lot of people in that crowd. I was impressed."
Romney claimed his win in the overall straw poll, edging Huckabee by 30 votes by relying on supporters who voted online. And Thompson won points by calling on his long opposition to abortion and his reliance on prayer to guide him as president.
"We've been together a long time," he said.
Randy Brinson, founder of Redeem the Vote, which helped mobilize young evangelical voters in 2004, and who is friends with Huckabee, says he believes that "gatekeepers" like Bauer, Perkins, and Dobson are more interested in Romney or Thompson because their campaigns have money to pay for consultants from the big conservative evangelical organizations, ensuring them access to the White House if either of them wins.