The confrontation at the top of the escalator in the Hilton Hotel was sudden and tense. Clad in black boots and a black "Mitt Romney" cap, Nancy French busily handed out buttons and pamphlets advertising "Evangelicals for Mitt."
French was one of nearly 2,000 evangelicals and conservatives who gathered in Washington, D.C., late last month for the Values Voter Summit sponsored by the Family Research Council (FRC).
All nine Republican presidential hopefuls spoke at the three-day conference, vying for the support of evangelicals at a crucial time for GOP candidates, who court the movement's endorsement, and for the religious right itself, struggling to maintain its relevance in a fractured GOP field.
When Margo Hamilton stepped off the escalator in the hotel lobby, she didn't want a Romney button, but she did want to ask French a question: "Excuse me, are you Mormon?" "No," replied French, "I'm Presbyterian." "Do you know what Mormons believe?" asked Hamilton. "You know they're not Christians at all, right?"
For the next few minutes, the pair sparred over the nature of Mormonism, and whether Christians should support a Mormon for the highest elected office. Near the revolving doors at the lobby's exit, a frustrated Hamilton told WORLD that she believes evangelical support for Romney is a "gross mistake."
French finds the argument that a Mormon presidency would legitimize a false religion equally frustrating. While she acknowledged Mormonism "is not orthodox Christianity," she added, "You do not have to be theologically squishy to support Gov. Romney. We are different, but we are politically allied."
Like other evangelical Romney supporters, French summed up her position: "The bottom line is we need to win in '08, and he is exactly with us on moral issues."
The brief Friday night exchange-and many others like it-reflects the larger struggle churning among evangelicals who typically vote for Republicans: Among a strikingly diverse field of candidates in a complicated political environment, which one should they choose? And in a campaign season with Republicans trailing in fundraising and polls, how far are evangelicals willing to go to keep a Democrat out of the White House?
Despite whispered conversations in hallways and secret meetings behind closed doors, Christian leaders at the conference made clear they wouldn't use the summit to endorse a candidate. That's at least partly because many of those leaders seem torn as well.
Recently in Salt Lake City, some 45 prominent Christian leaders met to discuss the slate of Republican presidential candidates. Soon after, Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson indicated that he and other leaders would back a third-party candidate if Rudy Giuliani wins the Republican nomination next year.
But in the days after Dobson's comments, other leaders who participated in the meeting-including Gary Bauer and FRC president Tony Perkins-publicly doubted the wisdom of planning for a third-party candidacy. At the Washington conference, Bauer told WORLD the idea is "political suicide. . . . I think that the energy that went into the debate about a third party is more wisely put into fighting for whatever nominee we want."
That's easier said than done. Bauer admits Christian leaders have not coalesced behind a single candidate, and he doesn't know if they will come to such an agreement. So far, those leaders are more united about which candidates they don't intend to support.
It's no secret that Giuliani tops that list. Several major Christian leaders have said they won't vote for the former mayor of New York City if he wins the nomination because of his pro-abortion views.
Giuliani was the last Republican candidate to accept an invitation to speak at the conference, and even his opponents admit it took courage for the candidate to address the overwhelmingly pro-life crowd. Bauer joked that "apart from being baptized on stage," Giuliani would have a tough time winning over this audience.
Giuliani didn't get baptized on stage, but he did quickly plunge into the topic of religion. At first he met a cool reception from the Saturday morning audience that had listened to seven other candidates tout their pro-life credentials the day before.
But Giuliani soon connected with the crowd with a strategy he uses often: brutal honesty.
He quickly admitted evangelicals don't agree with him on some issues, but insisted: "What unites us is greater than what divides us."
The reception grew warmer when Giuliani touted his success in cleaning up New York City and ridding Times Square of blocks of pornographic shops. But the loudest applause came when Giuliani played his trump card: a pledge to nominate strict constructionist judges.
The candidate hopes pro-life voters will put aside their qualms about his pro-abortion beliefs by assuring them that his presidency wouldn't make the abortion problem worse. As he has in the past, Giuliani spoke of the need to "reduce the number of abortions."
It's not clear that argument will win over evangelicals, but Giuliani does remain ahead in current polls, including among those who say they attend church regularly. And the candidate is banking on Republican fear that a Democratic alternative-specifically Hillary Clinton-would be worse for the country.
Bradley Ferguson is no Giuliani supporter, but he also doesn't want to see a Democratic candidate elected next year. The married father of three teenagers traveled with his family to the conference from Texas, and he says he is "more than undecided" about which candidate to support in the primaries. But he has decided one thing for certain: He will vote for the Republican nominee in the general election.
Ferguson says he wouldn't support Romney in a primary either, but would back him in a general election, largely because of what happened in his former home state of Arizona: That's where Democrat Janet Napolitano beat Republican Matt Salmon in the race for governor in 2002.
Salmon was a Mormon, but "100 percent on conservative issues," says Ferguson. Napolitano was "an atheistic, pro-abortion, pro-homosexual, high-tax liberal," he says. "But people wouldn't vote for Salmon because he was Mormon. To me that's insane."
Other Christian leaders share a similar perspective. Dobson and Perkins have hinted at support for Romney in the primary, and several high-profile evangelicals have recently endorsed the former Massachusetts governor, including publicist Mark DeMoss and Wayne Grudem of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
Bauer told WORLD he could support Romney in the primary as well, saying his Mormonism "wouldn't be a deal-breaker." Bauer said that Romney shares similar values with evangelicals, and that other Mormons elected to public office haven't used their position to promote religion: "So I would hope we could keep theology out of it."
Romney kept theology out of his Friday evening address at the conference. Some political observers wondered if the candidate would use the evangelical forum to confront concerns about his Mormonism and explain his religious beliefs. (John F. Kennedy famously delivered such an address about his Catholicism while running for the presidency.)
But Romney made only a passing reference to Mormonism, quickly transitioning into a discussion of strengthening the military and the economy. The candidate focused most of his speech on championing pro-life principles, and he pledged to support a Federal Marriage Amendment aimed at protecting traditional marriage.
That's not enough for Tricia Erickson. The former Mormon and daughter of a Mormon bishop grew up and married in the Church of Latter Day Saints before converting to Christianity later in life.
She now runs a production company and consulting business, and she sat in on a closed-door meeting with evangelical leaders at the Washington conference to follow up on their recent Salt Lake City meeting.
Erickson told WORLD she couldn't discuss the content of the meeting but did say she expressed her concerns over Romney's Mormonism, which she calls a cult. (She described a series of bizarre, secret rituals she participated in as a Mormon youth.)
Erickson said she's concerned that electing a Mormon president could make Mormonism more attractive to more Americans: "A lot of evangelicals don't really know about the Mormon religion."
Another source who attended the meeting, but asked not to be identified by WORLD, said that while the group (Dobson, Perkins, and Bauer were not present at the meeting) did not unanimously settle on a candidate to back, most people in the room expressed interest in the candidate who drew the most buzz over the weekend: Mike Huckabee.
Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, was the last candidate to speak but drew the most enthusiastic response. The former Southern Baptist minister warned the group to remember that while some political matters are negotiable, others aren't: "the sanctity of human life, the definition of marriage, the purpose of our freedom, and the opportunity for us to worship as we please."
Huckabee called for a Federal Marriage Amendment as well as a constitutional amendment to protect the unborn. He also called for welfare reform that would not penalize recipients for getting married, and for repairing a tax code so broken "not even duct tape and WD-40 can fix it."
Huckabee, who acknowledges he has far less money and recognition than his top-tier opponents, ended with a plea not to allow "expediency or electability to replace our principles as the new value."
Prominent Christian leaders have been slow to embrace Huckabee, and Bauer told WORLD that his primary concern is the candidate's electability in the upcoming primaries.
In a private meeting with supporters after his speech, Huckabee expressed frustration over Christian leaders' reticence to back him: "It's a little bit like a soldier who goes to war and his own army won't give him the supplies he needs to win."
But evangelicals at the conference handed Huckabee a huge win over the weekend: In a straw poll conducted by the FRC, Huckabee garnered 51 percent of those who voted on-site, swamping every other candidate. Romney trailed in second place with 10 percent of the on-site vote. (The FRC allowed online voting as well, and Romney edged Huckabee by 30 votes in the overall tally.)
Other major candidates struggled to gain traction with evangelicals at the conference: Fred Thompson delivered a lackluster speech that failed to inspire excitement in the audience. He placed third in the on-site straw poll, but enthusiasm for the candidate was minimal. "He just doesn't seem to have the fire in his belly," said Richard Perkins, father of the FRC president.
Still, Thompson remains strong in national polls, and some Christian leaders haven't ruled him out. But the crowd's reception was one more sign that Thompson will need to generate more energy to stay in the race.
Congressman Ron Paul placed third in the overall straw poll, evidence that his online presence is still strong: While he garnered 865 votes in the overall tally, he only gained 25 votes on-site at the conference. That was one less vote than Sam Brownback, who dropped out of the presidential race on the first day of the conference.
Paul hovers at 3 percent in the national polls, but he enjoys significant fundraising success: During the last quarter, he had more cash on hand than John McCain and raised more than $5 million in the third quarter.
McCain struggled to gain evangelical support over the weekend, coming in seventh in the on-site straw poll. He won applause for a patriotic speech that included a moving account of his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, but could not translate admiration into significant votes among evangelicals.
And while some conference attendees expressed keen interest in Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo (Hunter garnered more votes than McCain in the on-site poll), many seemed to think the traction they've gained is too small to remain in the race.
Eric Lupardus, a 20-year-old Huckabee supporter from Illinois, hopes that Huckabee's win in the FRC on-site straw poll will prompt more voters to coalesce behind the former governor, especially Christian leaders: "What they're looking for is right there in front of them."