NEW YORK – With their champion, Sen. Ted Cruz, now out of the presidential race, groups opposing abortion and same-sex marriage say they'll bide their time and warily assess Donald Trump before deciding whether to back him as the Republican nominee.
During months of campaigning, Trump has made some statements about abortion and gay rights that pleased social conservatives and others that unsettled them. That inconsistency, coupled with various liberal-leaning comments he made in past years, has deprived Trump of an enthusiastic embrace by the social conservative camp.
Now, with Trump the presumptive GOP nominee, there are recalculations being made by activist leaders who had backed Cruz, such as Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council.
"I endorsed Ted Cruz because of his clarity and conviction on issues that are central to our mission," said Perkins "Now I'm going to step back and see what Donald Trump says."
Two critical factors for Perkins: Who Trump picks as a running mate and what signals he sends about how he'd vet future judicial nominees.
Perkins also said that Trump — if he wants to solidify support from social conservatives — should study up on the details of their views.
"He needs to surround himself with people who understand these issues, and he needs to listen to them. I'll be watching who he brings around him," Perkins said.
Similar caution was voiced by Cruz supporter Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. The group was a major player in the unsuccessful campaign to prevent the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage.
"We will take our time to assess options and determine whether Mr. Trump is willing to engage in a discussion of the importance of these issues," Brown said in an email.
Trump's mixed commentary on gay rights issues has irked activists on both the left and right. For example, he has expressed misgivings about a North Carolina law curtailing rights protections for LGBT people, and he has also faulted the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that struck down state bans on same-sex marriage.
Among the statements that troubled many conservatives was Trump's comment in a TV interview that women getting illegal abortions should be punished. He quickly backtracked after sharp criticism from anti-abortion activists who said it undercut their efforts to empathize with women while targeting abortion providers with restrictive laws.
The Susan B. Anthony List was among the anti-abortion groups assailing Trump. Said its president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, last month, "Each pronouncement Mr. Trump makes on the issue of life seemingly must be corrected by someone 15 minutes later."
Dannenfelser, who was impressed by Cruz, is now open to backing Trump if he holds the anti-abortion line on three issues — defunding Planned Parenthood, supporting federal legislation that would ban most late-term abortions, and selecting federal judges who'd carry on the legacy of conservative Antonin Scalia, the late Supreme Court justice.
"There is no question that we have been and will remain vigilant," Dannenfelser said in regard to Trump. "But he has given us commitments ... We are cautiously optimistic he'll stay steadfast."
Another major anti-abortion organization, National Right to Life, had supported Cruz in the primaries. As of Thursday, it had not indicated publicly whether it would back Trump, though its president, Carol Tobias, noted that the group — like others in the social conservative realm — was opposed to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
One prominent abortion opponent — economics professor Michael New of Ave Maria University — went public with a tweet this week urging some leading Republican to launch a campaign against Trump now that Cruz and John Kasich have dropped out.
New, who employed the hashtag NeverTrumpForever, said he questioned Trump's ability "to articulate the pro-life position in an attractive manner." He also expressed doubts that Trump would nominate judges who would uphold anti-abortion laws.
Back in late February, when his campaign was thriving, Cruz formed a religious liberty advisory council and named 19 prominent social conservatives to serve on it, with Tony Perkins as the chairman.
Among its members was Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of the Texas-based First Liberty Institute.
Shackelford says he's now open to supporting Trump, depending on how he handles one specific issue — the selection of judicial nominees for the Supreme Court and other federal courts with a view toward protecting religious freedom.
"I didn't have any doubt about the type of justices Ted Cruz would appoint," Shackelford said. "I haven't had any interaction with Donald Trump or his team, but if he's committed to solid judicial appointments, he'll get my support."
Another member of the Cruz advisory council was the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, pastor at a church in Sacramento, California, and president of the evangelical National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
Rodriguez said he would expect Trump to endorse "a pro-life, pro-family, religious liberty, and immigration reform agenda."
"To date Donald Trump's comments about immigration have been inflammatory, impractical and unhelpful," Rodriguez said in a statement. "Now that he is the presumptive nominee, we call upon him to immediately stop rhetorical commentary he has previously used that discredits groups, including Latino immigrants."
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