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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Christians Seek '08 Voice

WASHINGTON -- A group of influential Christian conservatives and their allies emerged from a private meeting at a Florida resort this month dissatisfied with the Republican presidential field and uncertain where to turn.

The event was a meeting of the Council for National Policy, a secretive club whose few hundred members include James Dobson of Focus on the Family, the Reverend Jerry Falwell of Liberty University and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.

Although little known outside the conservative movement, the council has become a pivotal stop for Republican presidential primary hopefuls, including U.S. President George W. Bush on the eve of his 1999 primary campaign.

But in a stark shift from the group's influence under Bush, the group risks relegation to the margins. Many of the conservatives who attended the event, held at the beginning of the month at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, Florida, said they were dismayed at the absence of a champion to carry their banner in the next election.

Many conservatives have already declared their hostility to Senator John McCain of Arizona, despite his efforts to make amends for having once denounced Christian conservative leaders as "agents of intolerance," and to former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, because of his liberal views on abortion and gay rights and his three marriages.

Many were also suspicious of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts; members have used the council as a conduit to distribute a dossier prepared by a Massachusetts conservative group about liberal elements of his record on abortion, stem cell research and gay rights. Romney has worked to convince conservatives that his views have changed.

And some members of the council have raised doubts about lesser known candidates -- Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and California Representative Duncan Hunter, who were invited to Amelia Island to address an elite audience of about 60 of its members, and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, who spoke to the full council at its previous meeting, in October.

Although each of the three had supporters, many conservatives expressed concerns about whether any of the candidates could unify their movement or raise enough money to overtake the front-runners, several participants in the meetings said.

Finally, in a measure of their dissatisfaction, a delegation of prominent conservatives at Amelia Island tried to enlist as a candidate South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a guest speaker at the event. A charismatic politician with a clear conservative record, Sanford is almost unknown outside his home state and has done nothing to prepare for a presidential run. He firmly declined the group's entreaties, people involved in the recruiting effort said.

A spokesman for Sanford said he would not comment.

"There is great anxiety," said Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation. "There is no outstanding conservative, and they are all looking for that."

Weyrich, a longtime member of the council, declined to discuss the group or its meetings.

The council's bylaws forbid members from publicly disclosing its membership or activities, and participants agreed to discuss the Amelia Island meeting only on the condition of anonymity.

For eight years and four elections, Bush forged a singular alliance with Christian conservatives -- including dispatching administration officials and even Cabinet members to address council meetings -- that put them at the center of the Republican Party.

But in the aftermath of the stinging defeats in the midterm elections, and with discontent over the Iraq war weighing heavily on the public, some Christian conservatives worry that they may find themselves on the sidelines of the presidential race.