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US Republican Presidential Hopefuls Court Social Conservatives

Republican Party contenders for the U.S. presidency appealed for support Friday before a group of social conservative activists meeting in Washington. We have more from VOA National correspondent Jim Malone.

Social conservatives represent an important voting bloc in the party. They make up about a third of voters who take part in the Republican nominating caucuses and primaries that begin in January.

With that in mind, the Republican presidential hopefuls made their case for support before a gathering sponsored by the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group based in Washington.

Among them was Senator John McCain of Arizona. McCain has clashed with religious conservatives in the past but now emphasizes areas of agreement, including his opposition to abortion. "I have been pro-life my entire public career. I believe I am the only major candidate in either party who can make that claim," he said.

Former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee also made a pitch for support, even as he acknowledged his differences with conservative activists in the past. "We have not always agreed on the precisely right approach to absolutely everything, but our goal has always been the same. And that is to leave this country better off than when we came into it, just like our ancestors have done generation after generation for us," he said.

The gathering provided an opportunity for some of the less well-known Republican contenders to make a direct appeal for conservative support.

As he does in his campaign appearances around the country, Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo highlighted his opposition to illegal immigration. "When conservatives run on principles, we win. When we run away from principles, we lose," he said.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee will also address the gathering.

Giuliani leads in national public opinion polls among Republican voters, even though he supports abortion rights.

Some social conservatives are threatening to run a third party candidate in next year's election if Giuliani becomes the Republican nominee. So far, Giuliani's rivals have not been able to rally broad support from religious conservatives to the disappointment of many Republicans.

"And they are depressed that none of the four principle Republican candidates is really energizing the base, is really turning them on," said Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas had hoped his popularity with social conservatives would carry him to the Republican Party's presidential nomination next year. But Brownback has decided to abandon his White House bid after several months of disappointing showings both in the polls and in fundraising.