A stealth Mitt Romney endorsement from the religious right’s powerbrokers?

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Christian right leaders are abuzz today because a new online candidate guide that has been posted by Focus on the Family Action, the political arm of Jim Dobson’s conservative Christian empire. The webpage offers edited excerpts of recent webcasts with the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, explaining where the candidates stand on “pro-family issues.”

The video about Rudy Giuliani suggests that the former New York mayor would appoint a judge who would uphold Roe v. Wade, and knocks him for dressing in drag on Saturday Night Live. The video on John McCain hits the Arizona senator for campaign finance reform, his opposition to the federal marriage amendment and his 2000 comments about Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. “You want someone to depend on when you are in a fight, and you never really know where he is going to be,” says Perkins about McCain in the video.

This is all to be expected. But then it gets controversial. The video on Mike Huckabee, who is the overwhelming favorite among the nation’s evangelical voters, is surprisingly harsh. After praising Huckabee’s social views, both Perkins and Tom Minnery, a policy expert at Focus on the Family, hammer the former Arkansas governor for his foreign policy views. Minnery suggests that Huckabee does not understand the cause for which American troops are dying in Iraq. Then Perkins suggests that Huckabee lacks the fiscal and national security credentials needed for a conservative presidential candidate. “The conservatives have been successful in electing candidates, and presidents in particular, when they have had a candidate that can address not only the social issues, [but] the fiscal issues and the defense issues,” says Perkins. “[Huckabee] has got to reach out to the fiscal conservatives and the security conservatives.” Ouch.

So what about Romney? He comes up roses. “He has staked out positions on all three of the areas that we have discussed,” says Perkins. “I think he continues to be solidly conservative.” Then Minnery defends Romney from criticism that he is too polished and smooth. “Mitt Romney has acknowledged that Mormonism is not a Christian faith,” Minnery adds. “But on the social issues we are so similar.”

Mat Staver, a Huckabee supporter and legal advisor to churches, says the videos go right up to the line that walls off issue advocacy from a candidate endorsement. “I think it does endorse Romney,” said Staver, the dean of the Liberty University School of Law. “The presentation on Huckabee was lacking objectivity and context.”

Minnery, for his part, told me this afternoon that, “There was no endorsement implied or intended.” Decide for yourself. The videos can be found here.

UPDATE: I first viewed the Huckabee video before 11 a.m. eastern time Thursday. When I spoke with Minnery in the afternoon, he said the video had been updated in the morning. As it turns out, the update to the Huckabee video came after I first viewed it. The new version of the video, which you will see if you click the above link, contains a significantly longer segment praising Huckabee’s social issue stands than was originally posted. The criticism of Huckabee appears unchanged. When I asked Staver what he thought of the new version of the video, he said, “After their attention was called to this, apparently Focus on the Family Action backtracked and edited the portion on Huckabee to make it appear more objective.”