By JOE STINEBAKER Associated Press Writer HOUSTON (AP) - Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani forcefully reaffirmed his support for abortion rights on Friday and argued that his divergence from conservatives on the issue should not disqualify him from being the eventual GOP nominee.
"This is a matter of deep and profound judgment," he said in a speech at Houston Baptist University.
"It's a matter of morals. It's a matter of your interpretation of how laws should operate, your interpretation of how respect for the rights of others should operate. But in a country like ours ... I believe you have to respect their viewpoint and give them a level of choice. I would grant women the right to make that choice."
The former New York City mayor has struggled in the last week to explain his personal opposition to abortion with his long public record of favoring a woman's right to choose. He has defended his positions - and some say contradictory comments - on late-term abortion, public funding for abortions and the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.
But Giuliani left few questions about his position Friday, telling about 500 students and faculty at the small conservative school that - despite his belief that abortion was "morally wrong" - he believes the decision should ultimately be left to individuals and their decisions should be respected.
Opposition to abortion has been a litmus test for conservatives within the Republican Party, who hold considerable sway in the primaries. Giuliani has drawn criticism from some in the GOP for his abortion rights support.
One of his rivals, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has switched from supporting abortion rights to opposing the procedure - a shift that also has drawn complaints. Another rival, Sam Brownback, said Friday that an abortion rights Republican would have trouble winning the nomination.
His comments echoed those of another candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. "It is a pro-life party, with a pro-choice wing," said the Kansas senator, who spoke during a taping of Iowa Public Television's "Iowa Press" program. "I think he has great trouble winning off of that position."
Brownback also criticized Romney's switch. "I do think what will be a deal-breaker is if you flip on core issues like life, taxes, second amendment rights," he said.
Giuliani, acknowledging that his position on abortion differed from that of most of his audience, urged them to consider his views on other issues as well before deciding whether to support his candidacy. "You have a right to evaluate this in figuring out if you can support me, and at what level you can support me," Giuliani said.
"Everybody's got to make a choice. How important are the differences and then how important are the other issues that are involved in this election?" Giuliani emphasized his conservative credentials on tax cuts, crime and the war in Iraq.
He said his eight years as mayor of New York showed he could apply conservative social and economic principles even in the face of substantial opposition.
HBU President Robert Sloan said the Giuliani campaign called the university on Wednesday and asked if the candidate could speak there this week. Sloan said that, although campaign officials would not discuss why they had chosen HBU, he believed it was because Giuliani "wanted to forthrightly speak on social issues in an audience where religious matters and moral issues truly matter."
Several students praised Giuliani's speech, but said it was unlikely to make them support his candidacy. "Overall, I thought it was a great speech," said Erik Mignault, a 25-year-old political science major at HBU. "I agree that we're not going to agree 100 percent with all candidates. I think it was a good political stance to take. He's sitting right in the middle."
But Mignault and several other students said they were anti-abortion and likely to support a more conservative GOP candidate.
Giuliani's appearance was greeted warmly, and he appeared playful at times, hoisting a child with an "I Love New York" T-shirt and laughing at boos when he spoke of his love for the New York Yankees, the team that this week acquired Houston Astros star pitcher Roger Clemens.
But Giuliani told the audience that they should support a candidate who could protect America from terrorism and from Democratic assaults on the economy.
He acknowledged that abortion was the issue that most divided them.
"I have profound respect for your views," he said. "I have profound respect for your education, and I have profound respect for your religion."
But, he said, it is uniquely American to disagree on some political issues while agreeing on many others. "We understand how to respect each other's differences," he said.