“I’d like to find the truly pro-life presidential candidate,” says Charles Burke, the former president of the DeWitt, Iowa, Right to Life Christians. He talks in a gruff voice and with a clear midwestern accent, but he speaks as if he were looking for something mysterious or idyllic, such as the Lost Cities of Gold or the cure for cancer.
Burke, a former supporter of Sen. Sam Brownback’s (R., Kan.) defunct campaign for president, told National Review Online Monday, that he is without a primary candidate for now. “I’d certainly never vote for [Rudy] Giuliani or any Democratic person,” he said, referring to the former mayor of New York City, who leads in national polls for the GOP nomination. “They all seem to be in favor of abortion, and I’m not in favor of that.”
Like many pro-life leaders in Iowa and nationwide, Burke has faced a difficult choice among a Republican field whose frontrunners have a sketchy past with the issue. Giuliani supports legal abortion. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the leader in Iowa and other early states, changed his position on the issue just in time for a presidential run.
Before I could ask Burke what he thought of the National Right to Life Committee’s (NRLC) decision to endorse Fred Thompson, he cut to the former Republican senator from Tennessee. “I’ve read some stuff that makes me think he’s not 100 percent pro-life,” Burke said with skepticism, although he couldn’t remember any specifics. Told of the NRLC endorsement, he expressed some surprise — as had many pro-lifers in Washington — but his attitude softened a bit. “At the moment I’m leaning toward Romney,” said Burke. “But I haven’t completely ruled out Thompson. I’d like to know the reasons why they’re endorsing him. There’s quite a bit of time to make up my mind yet.”
In telephone interviews on Monday, Iowan pro-life leaders told NRO that the NRLC endorsement does mean something — in Burke’s case, it meant that he would give him another look. But no one was going to run off a cliff behind that banner, either.
“I don’t know whether this endorsement will mean too much one way or the other,” said Carol Axtell, former president of Linn Area Lutherans for Life. “I would have to hear their reasoning.”
When he entered the race in September, many believed that Thompson would seize the banner for pro-lifers and other conservatives, rising to the top in a field divided between long-shot candidates and frontrunners with questionable conservative credentials. Thompson’s voting record on abortion is impeccable. For that reason, most pro-lifers seemed willing to overlook some legal advice he had given a pro-abortion group, a client of his law firm, in the early 1990s.
But despite early sympathy from millions of conservatives of all stripes, Thompson’s campaign has gotten off to an extremely disappointing start. After surging quickly in key state and national polls, his tide has ebbed after several unimpressive public appearances and a feeling among some conservatives that he just doesn’t have the drive to win.
“I don’t have any major problems with Fred,” Meg Crawford, vice president of Crest Area Right to Life in Union County, Iowa, said Monday. “The fact that he got into the race as late as he did…he has a sense like he doesn’t really want it. If he did really want it, he would have been out here working a lot harder. He might be the one to do it. I don’t know, his heart doesn’t seem to be in it.”
Thompson slightly dulled conservative fervor when he took a middle-ground position on same-sex marriage. And earlier this month, in an interview on Meet the Press, Thompson took a much bigger step to alienate social conservatives by disowning the Human Life Amendment, a longtime plank in the Republican-party platform (his campaign later retracted this). Then, without even being asked the question, he insulted pro-lifers by bringing up the straw-man argument often invoked disingenuously by pro-abortion activists, of women being hauled off to jail for having abortions.
“I do not think it is a wise thing to criminalize young girls and perhaps their parents as aiders and abettors,” he said. “[Y]ou can’t have a law that cuts off an age group or something like that, which potentially would take young, young girls in extreme situations and say, basically, we’re going to put them in jail to do that.”
The question now is whether the NRLC endorsement will convince pro-lifers to coalesce around Thompson in order to stop Giuliani. Otherwise, the national GOP race looks to be evolving into a two-man contest between Giuliani and Romney.
“There are people who are still trying to decide and will want to know who to choose, and they look to NRLC to get direction,” said Kim Lehman, president of Iowa Right to Life.
In Iowa, however, this dynamic may not even exist. With the Iowa caucuses just seven weeks away, the former mayor runs at a distant fourth place in the latest poll and appears to be writing off the state. Pro-lifers in Iowa, therefore, will not necessarily feel the same urgency that exists in other states to unite behind a pro-life candidate who can stop him. Romney leads big in Iowa right now, and in second place is Mike Huckabee, the social-conservative former governor of Arkansas.
Iowa conservatives, not cowed by the prospect of a Giuliani victory, may not be swayed by NRLC’s support for Thompson. Alternatively, they may not feel a need to unite behind Romney if they feel uneasy about his pro-choice past.
Either way, Thompson probably must win or place a very strong second in Iowa to make any real headway. His numbers in New Hampshire have fallen off a cliff, he is slipping slowly in South Carolina, and in Florida he has fallen back into single digits, in fourth place behind Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.). For that reason, Fred will be eager for Iowans to pay attention to what the NRLC says today.
“Definitely, by the time of the caucuses, I’ll have made a decision, said Crawford. “It seems sad to say that I can’t tell you who it would be. You’d think that by this time I’d have made a decision.”
– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.