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7 GOP hopefuls face off in values debate

BY BREANNE GILPATRICK, bgilpatrick@miamiherald.com

CandidatesOn a night that opened with 90 minutes of prayers, gospel music and Bible verses, seven Republican presidential candidates gathered in Fort Lauderdale to try and win over an evangelical voting bloc that has been a political powerhouse in past elections.
But with most of the Republican front-runners spending the night at other events, Monday's Values Voter Presidential Debate featured the other candidates trying to woo largely undecided voters with their conservative credentials and boost their single-digit poll numbers.

Evangelical voters nationwide have spent the past few months trying to find a candidate with the right mix of social conservative issues and electability in a crowded GOP candidate pool. And at Monday's three-hour debate at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, leaders from dozens of social conservative groups asked candidates about issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration.

Throughout the debate, participants like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter from California infused their answers with a mix of religion and politics.

''Faith is an important thing,'' Brownback said during his introduction. ``And it is something we have been taking out of the public square when we should be inviting it into the public square.''

Also on stage were two candidates who have yet to be included in national polls: Illinois businessman John Cox and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes.

Each candidate tried to portray himself as the social conservative standard-bearer, with promises to support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and to appoint the Supreme Court justice that overturns Roe v. Wade.

''If a potential Supreme Court justice can look at a sonogram and not see a valuable human life, I will not appoint that judge to the bench,'' Hunter told the crowd of more than 500.

One portion of the debate required candidates to pick only ''yes'' or ''no'' by turning on green or red lights on their podiums.

Throughout the campaign, evangelicals nationwide have said they worry that the candidates who are now leading the polls might be soft on conservative issues.

As proof, they point to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's positions on abortion and gun control and to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's recent anti-abortion conversion.

But voters also worry candidates with stronger conservative records like Huckabee and Brownback haven't turned their track records into voter support.

In Florida, for example, both candidates have been polling in the single digits throughout the summer, according to Quinnipiac University polls.

Giuliani, Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Fred Thompson missed Monday's debate, drawing criticism from debate organizers, who left empty podiums on stage.

Campaign representatives told organizers that scheduling conflicts kept the candidates from being in town Monday night.

Giuliani was slated to meet with supporters at a Tampa cafe and attend a fundraiser.

Asked why he wasn't attending the debate, Giuliani said, ``I wasn't aware of it.''

Monday also was the proposed day for the Republican YouTube-CNN debate. But several weeks ago that debate was rescheduled to Nov. 28 after Giuliani and Mitt Romney said they couldn't attend.

The decision by most major candidates to skip the debate has left some observers wondering whether the social conservative voters might be losing some of their influence, especially after the recent death of one of their leaders, Rev. Jerry Falwell.

But Republican candidates aren't likely to write off a socially conservative voting block with a long history of active electoral support, political observers say.

Leading candidates have courted social conservatives in other venues. Earlier this year, McCain delivered the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va., and Thompson used his Florida-wide bus tour to talk up his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Miami Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.

Photo by JARED LAZARUS / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Caption: The Republican candidates field questions Monday night at the Values Voter Presidential Debate in Fort Lauderdale. From left, Mike Huckabee, Tom Tancredo, John Cox, Sam Brownback, Ron Paul, Duncan Hunter and Alan Keyes.

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