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Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani speaks at Houston Baptist University Friday. He acknowledged his liberal views and said he backs gay unions.

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 » Behind Giuliani's pro-choice gambleRead article from Time magazine

HOUSTON — In a shift of tactics, Republican presidential contender Rudolph Giuliani acknowledged his liberal views Friday, calling a woman's right to choose an abortion one of his "core beliefs."

After a week of criticism for making contradictory comments about abortion, Giuliani also said he backs gay domestic partnerships that aren't marriage and the right of states to restrict guns.

Meanwhile, in an article titled "Behind Giuliani's Pro-Choice Gamble," found at www.Time.com, author David Von Drehle states that "Giuliani's decision to be more forthright about his pro-choice stance on abortion may be the boldest step of the Presidential campaign so far. And while it's certainly a gamble, because it will likely inflame the social-issue conservatives who form a key minority in the Republican party, it's far from reckless. On the contrary, it is the first tangible sign that a candidate did some hard thinking about the radically changed nature of this year's primary schedule and, in Giuliani's case, decided that the reign of social conservatives is coming to an end."

Giuliani, a New York Catholic who once considered the priesthood, chose to make his stand before a conservative, Protestant audience at Houston Baptist University in an appearance arranged just Wednesday.

His embrace of abortion, which dramatically sets him apart from his Republican rivals, represents a political gamble that his campaign felt he had to take since his liberal views as New York City mayor in the 1990s give him little room to maneuver.

"I believe abortion is wrong," he said. But out of respect for other people's fervent support of abortion, he said, "I would grant to women the right to make that choice."

Giuliani said his views have evolved, but those two "core beliefs" always have and always will guide him.

"It means I am open to considering ways to limit abortion," he said. "It means I'm open to seeking ways to reduce the number of abortions."

Specifically, he said he supports the 2003 federal law banning late-term abortions, which was recently upheld by the Supreme Court, and the Hyde Amendment that restricts federal funding for abortions.

Yet Giuliani also sought to downplay his differences with conservatives, calling social issues secondary to what he described as the two "overriding" issues in the presidential race.

"We have to be on the offense against terrorism," he said. "And we have to be on the offense to preserve our private economy."

Holding out defeat to the Democrats in next year's election, Giuliani pleaded for Republicans to adopt a "big tent" approach, permitting differing views on less important issues.

And he appealed to the audience to judge him for his overall record, especially as a leader and as a fiscal conservative, and not on a single issue.

Giuliani also asserted that his views on gay rights and gun control are not that different from conservatives.

He said he supported civil unions, but believed that marriage is reserved for the union of a man and a woman.

While he conceded he strictly applied gun laws in New York as mayor, he stressed that he had applied all laws strictly. And he praised a recent appellate court decision interpreting the Second Amendment to guarantee an individual's right to own a gun.

Abortion has turned into a perilous issue for Giuliani's campaign, popping up almost daily.

The New York Daily News reported Friday that priests at St. Patrick's Cathedral and a local parish where his second marriage was performed probably would bar him from communion for backing abortion.

His support for abortion on a 1997 mayoral-race questionnaire also surfaced.

Giuliani's gamble is that he can become the first abortion supporter to win the nomination of a Republican Party that has been anti-abortion since the procedure was legalized in 1973.

Giuliani's decision to discuss his controversial views won admiration, but not necessarily support, from several audience members.

The university's board chairman, Jack Carlson, and his wife, Karen, said Giuliani's forthright speech and support for the war in Iraq had earned him another look. But they said it was too early to commit to a candidate.