Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson has picked up an important endorsement from the National Right to Life committee, the nation's best known anti-abortion group.
The endorsement surprised some because Thompson does not support the Human Life Amendment that has been the movement's central goal for decades. The announcement is also another sign of division among social conservatives as the 2008 presidential voting approaches.
David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, said he knows prominent social conservatives have thrown support behind other GOP candidates. But he vowed that his organization's backing will be a boost for Thompson.
"This is the first endorsement in the Republican race from a major grass-roots pro-life organization, representing 50 state organizations and about 3,000 chapters," O'Steen said. "It's been done after much consideration, much study, we have been watching this race since January."
O'Steen said his group pored over voting records and positions on abortion, but also electability. He made it clear one goal was preventing the nomination of the current GOP front-runner, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
"Rudy Giuliani has not changed his position — he's running as a pro-abortion candidate," O'Steen said. "I would assume he's expressing his views, and he's been consistent with that."
Thompson has been playing up his own consistency in an new television ad, saying he's "proud to have a 100 percent pro-life voting record."
But on NBC's Meet the Press nine days ago, Thompson struggled with the question of when life begins. He had said in 1994 that he wasn't sure. And he told NBC in the recent interview, "my head has always been the same place." But later in the interview, he said he believes life begins at conception.
Thompson also said he remains opposed to a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion, and thought it more pragmatic to leave the question to the states.
"I think people ought to be free at state and local levels to make decisions that even Fred Thompson disagrees with," he said. "That's what freedom is all about. And I think the diversity we have among the states, the system of federalism we have where power is divided between the state and the federal government ... serves us very, very well. I think that's true of abortion."
O'Steen said his group found Republican Mitt Romney too inconsistent on the abortion issue. He faulted Arizona Sen. John McCain on embryonic stem-cell research, and regarded the other contenders as long shots — too under-funded to catch Giuliani.
In recent days, social conservatives have been as vocal as ever — just not as harmonious.
Televangelist Pat Robertson said he's backing Giuliani.
Paul Weyrich, a founder of the Moral Majority, said Romney is his man.
Conservative Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback ended his presidential campaign, endorsing rival McCain.
Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist, said that in the last few elections, social conservatives had a clear choice.
"George Bush combined a perspective that was very familiar to social conservatives, and an ability to win and raise millions and millions of dollars," he said. When asked which Republican could accomplish that now, Ayres replied: "Nobody, which is why social conservatives are fractured at the moment."
Still, Ayres insisted the party is not too worried about where social conservatives will be by next fall. Hillary Clinton, he said, remains social conservatives' best hope for a rallying cry.