WASHINGTON - Rudy Giuliani, whose two divorces and proabortion-rights views have alienated many Christian conservatives, yesterday captured the endorsement of the Rev. Pat Robertson, a prominent televangelist who said the former New York mayor would be the best candidate to counter the "blood lust of Islamic terrorists."
Robertson's support helps Giuliani deflect criticism from the Republican Party's right wing, which sees him as too liberal on social issues.
But it also underscored the splintering in the Christian conservative community and raises questions about whether evangelicals - who played a key role in electing President Bush in 2000 and 2004 - will be an important force in the presidential election.
In another sign of the fragmentation, Senator John McCain of Arizona yesterday picked up the endorsement of Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, a conservative who dropped out of the presidential race last month and who considered endorsing Giuliani.
Robertson, who sought the GOP nomination in 1988, has drawn controversy for his remarks about Islam. On his Christian Broadcasting Network show, "The 700 Club," Robertson has warned of a looming "holy war" between Muslims and Christians and called Islam "satanic."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations yesterday urged Giuliani to reject Robertson's endorsement.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Robertson was criticized for suggesting that God allowed the attacks to happen because of the country's tolerance of abortion and homosexuality.
Giuliani, however, welcomed the backing of Robertson, whom he described as a fiscal conservative who has "very well articulated what are the overriding issues of our time, dealing with the Islamic terrorist war against us."
Robertson yesterday brushed aside Giuliani's abortion stance, saying the former mayor had assured him he would appoint conservative jurists similar to Supreme Court Justices John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
But other Christian leaders are less forgiving, and have divided their support among other candidates, finding themselves torn between supporting someone with a less-than-perfect conservative record or picking someone unlikely to win.
Former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has drawn support from Bob Jones III, chancellor of Bob Jones University, and Paul M. Weyrich, cofounder of the Moral Majority. Former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas has the endorsement of the Rev. Rick Scarborough, a high-profile pastor and the head of Vision America.
Brownback said he chose McCain because he is the "best pro-life candidate to beat Hillary Clinton in the fall."
"I don't think the faith community is divided as much as undecided," Brownback said in Des Moines, where he was campaigning with McCain. "You're just seeing the movement being broadened, and for the first time in a long time there's a wide-open primary."
Romney, who gave the commencement speech in May at Robertson's Regent University, shrugged off the Robertson and Brownback announcements. "I can't get all the social conservatives to endorse my candidacy," Romney told reporters as he campaigned in South Carolina yesterday, according to the Associated Press. "I'm really pleased with the support I've got."
The lineup of GOP candidates has sent the Christian conservative community into turmoil. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, is so displeased with Giuliani's abortion-rights stance that he has threatened to vote for a third-party candidate if Giuliani wins the nomination.
Other evangelicals are uncomfortable with Romney's Mormon religion and distrustful because he once backed gay rights and abortion rights. McCain has upset religious political activists because he authored a sweeping campaign-finance overhaul law that limits their political spending.
But at the same time, the religious leaders have been reluctant to back a candidate behind in the polls, worried that their political power will fade if someone is nominated or elected without their support, analysts said. Campaign staff members for Huckabee, a Baptist minister with a solid social conservative record, said he has won private accolades from Christian conservatives, but the leaders are concerned Huckabee cannot win.
Some analysts wonder how much endorsements still matter. Doug Koopman, director of the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., said younger evangelicals do not accept the hierarchical structure of the traditional Christian groups, such as Robertson's and Dobson's, and will probably make their choices based on their individual assessments.
Robertson, asked yesterday whether electability played a role in his choice of Giuliani, said, "This isn't a calculated decision to see who's the most electable."
But he added, "We do want a front-runner in the Republican Party who can win a general election."
Milligan reported from Washington and Issenberg from Des Moines.