Rudy Giuliani’s candidacy for Republican presidential nominee looks set to provoke a split in the Republican party, threatening its 150 year history.

Mr Giuliani’s tolerant views on homosexuality and abortion are stoking dissent in the party’s religious wing, who are less than impressed with the candidates on offer.

Last Saturday a secretive meeting of around 40 high powered Christian conservatives took place in Salt Lake City to discuss their options, including forming a break-away third party.

Participants in the group included James Dobson, founder of the Focus on the Family evangelical ministry and Tony Perkins, head of conservative policy group the Family research Council.

Richard A. Viguerie, direct-mail expert and long-time conservative activist told AP that while he would not give away the names of the people at the meeting, President Bush “would not have been elected in ’04 without the people in that room.”

He continued: “You could almost cut the anger and the frustration with a knife in that room it’s so strong.

“Because they don’t know what else to do, they’re talking third party.”

Rumours such as this could easily drive American liberals into a frenzy of anticipation. A split Republican party could well signal a free-run for the presidency for a Democratic candidate dedicated to gay rights, women’s rights and a less hawkish foreign policy.

As Johann Hari wrote in the Independent: “If Giuliani becomes the Republican nominee, there is a significant chance that the evangelical wing of the party – obsessed with God, guns and gays – will break away and run a third party candidate against him.

“James Dobson, founder of the influential, hard-right Focus on the Family, has already said he ‘cannot, and will not, vote for Rudy Giuliani in 2008. It is an irrevocable decision.’

“An evangelical third party could split the right-wing vote and let a Democrat through the middle – just as Ross Perot did in 1992.”

Giuliani, who is, if anything, further to the right of Bush on foreign policy matters, adopts a distinctly tolerant manner when discussing abortion and gay rights. After dumping his second wife he even went so far as to move in with a gay couple.

Pushed on the possibility of a Republican split while campaigning in New Jersy, Mr Giuliani said: “I’m working on one party right now — the Republican Party.

“I believe we are reaching out very, very well to Republicans. The emphasis is on fiscal conservatism, which brings Republicans together.”

Christian conservatives are feeling hard done by, faced with a collection of socially liberal republican presidential candidates. Apart from Giuliani, Senator Fred Thompson takes a progressive attitude to social issues and John McCain opposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

The Republican party’s current problems are merely the latest incarnation of tensions which have simmered under the surface for several decades.

Right wing commentators claim the party routinely uses and abuses its Christian support base, relying on them for votes but rarely delivering the changes they want.

As Mr Viguerie told AP: “Conservatives have been treated like a mistress as long as any of us can remember.

“They’ll have lots of private meetings with us, tell us how much they appreciate it and how much they value us, but if you see me on the street please don’t speak with me.”

Left wing commentators claim Republicans use religious issues to convince working class Americans to vote against their economic interests, winning elections by railing against abortion and gay marriage and then using power to implement tax cuts for the super-rich.