(WOMENSENEWS)--As the contest for the Republican presidential nomination turns toward South Carolina, religious conservatives are torn between three staunch opponents of abortion: the anti-choice establishment choice Fred Thompson, comeback candidate John McCain and grassroots evangelical favorite, Mike Huckabee.
Except for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, all the Republican presidential candidates oppose abortion.
The National Right to Life Committee in Washington, D.C., gave its endorsement last year to Thompson--the former senator from Tennessee who appeared more viable when he entered the race last September--and many state affiliates followed suit.
Grassroots activists and voters in South Carolina, which holds a critical primary election on Jan. 19 in the heart of the Bible Belt, are bucking the establishment choice in light of surprise developments on the campaign trail.
Once considered unelectable, Huckabee, the Arkansas Baptist minister who got his start in politics lobbying for an anti-abortion law and pulled an upset victory in last week's Iowa caucuses, is now vying with McCain, who triumphed in the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary, for frontrunner status in South Carolina.
McCain leads the GOP primary electorate in South Carolina with 27 percent of the vote, three points higher than Huckabee, according to a Jan. 9 poll of 785 likely Republican primary voters conducted by Rasmussen Reports. Thompson placed fourth with 12 percent of the vote, four points behind Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Huckabee Holds Polling Edge
However, Huckabee continues to hold a slight edge in national surveys, according to Rasmussen Reports. But he faces stiff competition from McCain, Romney and Giuliani in Michigan's Jan. 15 primary, Nevada's Jan. 19 primary, and Florida's Jan. 29 primary.
South Carolina Citizens for Life, the state's leading anti-choice organization, has endorsed Thompson, but smaller anti-choice groups, grassroots activists and voters are giving their support to Huckabee, according to David Woodard, a pollster and professor of political science at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Huckabee, meanwhile, has the backing of anti-choice religious pregnancy counseling centers and regular church-goers, who comprise the vast majority of the GOP primary electorate, Woodard said.
"If that's the Religious Right, that's who he's connecting with," Woodard said.
Laura Woliver, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, cautioned against counting out McCain, who is enjoying a modest electoral bounce after his surprise victory in New Hampshire and whose emphasis on national security plays well with the state's large military constituency.
McCain faced resistance from anti-choice voters in his 2000 bid for the GOP nod because of his support for campaign finance laws that forced the producers of "issue ads"--such as those attacking politicians for not opposing abortion--to disclose contributors and potentially expose their connections to political parties.
Huckabee is the "candidate to beat" among anti-choice voters, Woliver said. "He speaks their language."
Visits Pregnancy Center
Huckabee courted anti-choice and religious conservative voters Wednesday during a trip to South Carolina, where he highlighted his opposition to abortion with a visit to the Carolina Pregnancy Center, a religious organization in Spartanburg that counsels pregnant women against abortion, and in speeches in Spartanburg and Greenville.
Huckabee, however, is still contending with the early endorsement of Thompson by established anti-choice groups. Holly Gatling, executive director of South Carolina Citizens for Life, says it gives Thompson "enthusiastic backing."
Woodard said the outcome of the primary will likely ripple across the South, which tends to follow South Carolina's lead. The victor will also head into "Super Tuesday" on Feb. 5, when more than 20 states hold their nominating contests, with considerable momentum.
The prospect makes pro-choice groups shudder.
As governor of Arkansas, Huckabee backed numerous restrictions on abortion, including a ban on a specific procedure used after the 12th week of pregnancy. He has also supported laws requiring minors to receive parental consent before having an abortion and ordering physicians to tell pregnant women fetuses experience pain during abortion.
During his campaign, Huckabee has called for the repeal of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that decriminalized abortion, and said he supports a constitutional amendment stating that life begins at conception, which would establish legal rights for embryos and fetuses.
"Mike Huckabee's win in the Iowa caucuses means there could be a presidential nominee who is arguably more anti-choice than even President Bush," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "We cannot afford another four years of Bush-style anti-choice politics."
In 1998, Huckabee signed a full-page advertisement in USA Today endorsing the Southern Baptist Convention's stance that women should graciously submit to their husbands. He has also said he opposes placing women in combat because it conflicts with his traditional views about proper treatment of women.
Genevieve Wood, a cultural analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C., defended Huckabee's record and noted that he appointed a number of women to prominent positions in state government.
"Mike Huckabee's wife has run for state office, and he endorsed her," she said during a roundtable discussion last month on "To the Contrary," a television show on PBS about women's issues. "Obviously he does not think women have to stay home, or that women can't work, that women can't have children and a career."
Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women's Forum, a Washington think tank that promotes free market policies, chimed in: "This is not a man who is anti-women."
However, Carrie Lukas, an economics analyst at the Independent Women's Forum, describes Huckabee as an economic liberal with a vision of bigger government. "When it comes to domestic policies, that's not where Republican women want the country to go."
As governor, Huckabee raised the minimum wage, increased taxes to pay for government expansion of health care and other programs, and tightened regulation of business.
He is the only Republican candidate who opposed President Bush's veto last year of the proposed expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which would have expanded health coverage for children by increasing taxes on tobacco products. And he opposes steep welfare cuts.
"As an individual, I don't support him because he is a taxer," said Michelle Easton, president of the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, an advocacy group in Herndon, Va., that trains young women to enter politics.
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.
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