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The Year of Flawed Candidates By: Byron York
The Hill | Tuesday, November 13, 2007

These days, every presidential candidate has some sort of problem. Barack Obama is inexperienced, Hillary Clinton won’t take a position, John McCain is old, Fred Thompson is unengaged, Mike Huckabee is more preacher than president.

But in the Republican race, two leading candidates have the same problem. When Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney make a promise to a major constituency — social conservatives — a significant number of people don’t believe them.

For Romney, the promise is that he is really, truly pro-life after runs for office in 1994 and 2002 in which he was strongly, emphatically pro-choice.

For Giuliani, the promise is that he will appoint strict-constructionist judges — read that judges who might overturn Roe v. Wade — when he himself is pro-choice.

In Iowa a couple of weeks ago, I met a social conservative activist named Ralph Goemaat. Strongly pro-life but uncommitted in the presidential race, Goemaat had narrowed his choices to McCain and Huckabee. I asked him about Romney. “In all honesty, he says everything that I want to hear,” Goemaat told me. “I just don’t have the confidence in him at this point that what he says is really what he believes.

“There are a number of people out there who do trust him,” Goemaat continued, “and I hope they’re right. “But I have been burned by people who run one way and govern another way, so I’m a little cautious.”

Goemaat ultimately decided to go with McCain.

At the moment, Romney has a solid lead in Iowa, so Goemaat may well be in the minority. But McCain and other candidates like to point out that Iowans often make up their minds very late in the campaign, so the strength of commitment to Romney hasn’t been tested.

Then there’s Giuliani. After wiggling around on the abortion issue a few months ago, he decided to be his same old pro-choice self.

But his pitch to pro-lifers is that he will appoint those strict-constructionist judges to the courts, and you don’t have to look very far to see social conservatives who aren’t buying it.

Giuliani knows that, but in an interview with me on Wednesday, he seemed a little baffled by it.

“I don’t understand why,” Giuliani said. “Because look, if I was going to try to fool them, I would just change my positions. I would just fool them, right? I’m not suggesting anybody else has done that. So I think people should have the sense that I’m straight with them. And if they just look at my history and background, who do they think I’m going to appoint? All of my friends, all of the people I’ve associated with, all the people I respect, the vast majority of them would fall into the category of conservative thinkers, conservative lawyers and strict-constructionist judges.”

Giuliani has tried to make a down payment on his promise by appointing several conservative legal superstars — among them Theodore Olson and Miguel Estrada — as his advisers on judicial matters.

If he becomes president, Giuliani told me, they are the types who will help him choose nominees. “Our whole purpose is going to be to do the best we can to find strict-constructionist judges,” he said. “I don’t know why anybody would think there’s some kind of hidden agenda to do anything else.”

I was speaking to Giuliani immediately after he appeared at a news conference to announce that televangelist Pat Robertson has chosen to endorse him.

The question now is, will that help with Rudy’s belief gap among social conservatives.

Robertson said Giuliani “has articulated a philosophy that he really is for the life of the unborn” and “has assured the American people that his choices for judicial appointments will be men and women who share the judicial philosophy of John Roberts and Antonin Scalia.”

Robertson is apparently assured, but we’ll have to wait and see about other social conservatives.

For his part, Romney is getting help with the belief gap from the legendary conservative activist Paul Weyrich, who wants you to know that Romney is a true-blue conservative: In his brief endorsement message, Weyrich said Romney has “conservative principles” and “conservative vision” and “conservative values.”

Now, it might be that one of the other Republican candidates sneaks past Giuliani and Romney. But it’s more likely that one of the two will ultimately bridge the belief gap — and that will be the key to victory.

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