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Right-to-Life Group Expected to Back Thompson

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Right-to-Life Group Expected to Back Thompson

Right-to-Life Group Expected to Back Thompson

Right-to-Life Group Expected to Back Thompson

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The National Right to Life Committee is expected to endorse Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson, the actor and former senator from Tennessee. It is another sign that the support of social conservatives is unusually diffused as early primary voting approaches.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

The most prominent anti-abortion advocacy group in the country has picked a candidate in the 2008 presidential race - it's Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee. Today, the National Right to Life Committee announced its endorsement and it is sure to disappoint some of the other Republican contenders. It's another sign that the support of social conservatives is unusually diffuse as we approach the first round of presidential voting.

Joining us now is NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving.

Ron, good morning.

RON ELVING: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: The Thompson endorsement may come as a surprise to some conservatives because while he does oppose abortion, he's far from being the most outspoken candidate on the issue. Why not go with someone who is?

ELVING: Linda, the Right to Life Committee doesn't see this as a contest to decide who is the most anti-abortion candidate. They see this being about finding an anti-abortion candidate who's got the best chance of taking the nomination away from the most pro-choice Republican alternative, Rudy Giuliani, and then beating the Democratic nominee a year from now.

WERTHEIMER: And that's because Giuliani has been a strong supporter of abortion rights in the past - as in fact, half of all the Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton.

ELVING: Exactly. And some serious social conservatives have actually talked about bolting the Republican Party for a third option if Giuliani is nominated. So you take a savvy outfit like the National Right to Life Committee, which pretty much the General Motors of the Right to Life Committee - of the Right to Life Movement, I should say - and what they're worry about is preserving the conservative coalition - not just Christians, not just religious people, but all social conservative - which has pretty much won five of the last seven presidential elections, including the last two.

WERTHEIMER: Okay. So they want to stop Rudy Giuliani, but why pick Fred Thompson? Why not the man who is ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire, which would be Mitt Romney? He says he is against abortion.

ELVING: That's what he says but it's not what he's always said. And being consistent on this issue matters a lot to this organization and to the constituency that it speaks for. Now Thompson has a blot on his record too because he once lobbied for an abortion rights group, but that was before his time in Congress. And his Senate record was pretty much unblemished. He was a pro-life senator.

WERTHEIMER: What about other candidates who've always been anti-abortion -Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo or, notably, Mike Huckabee, whose popularity is growing as a former governor, a Baptist minister.

ELVING: Well, I think the Right to Life Committee would love to have any of those people as the nominee, but they don't see them as likely enough to be the nominee. And this group, like a lot of others, wants a winner.

First, of course, because they want another Reagan or Bush in the White House for their issue. But if that's not going to happen, if it's not going to be a good cycle for this movement, then they need to think defensively. And they don't want to back a loser in the primaries and be blamed for that person losing. That would make them weak.

WERTHEIMER: Do you - what makes Mike Huckabee a loser? Does he have some problem that put off people who would seem to be his natural allies?

ELVING: Maybe not the ones who are his most natural allies on social issues, but he is seen as having been a taxing governor - a governor who's willing to raise taxes in Arkansas. And that has made him very unpopular with those Republicans for whom the tax issue is paramount.

WERTHEIMER: What about Pat Robertson endorsing Rudy Giuliani? Now that was a surprise. Are we seeing the religious conservative movement splintering?

ELVING: It is divided for the moment and no one candidate has come out to bring it together so far. So at this point, it appears the candidate most likely to reunite this movement is Hillary Clinton. If she's the Democratic nominee, a lot of social conservatives who leave the movement, will reunite overnight no matter whom the Republican's nominee.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving.

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