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Amid all the hoopla about Pat Robertson’s endorsement of Rudy Giuliani last week, another endorsement got lost in the mix that may signify an even more important development.

Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a former presidential candidate who is very respected among religious conservatives, decided to endorse John McCain for president. His logic: “I am endorsing the best pro-life candidate to beat Hillary Clinton.”

McCain’s candidacy has been thought to be dead in the water for quite a while now. The conservative base rose up in arms when McCain included a path to earned legalization in his proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. Furthermore, his unwavering support for the war in Iraq alienated his natural constituency of independents and Republican moderates.

But after all the long months of campaigns, debates, and mud-slinging, Brownback’s endorsement shows that this race could very well end up turning out the way most political observers predicted over a year ago. At that time, the three leading Republican contenders were Giuliani, McCain, and Mitt Romney. Giuliani is pro-choice and Romney was pro-choice pretty much right up until the start of his presidential campaign (in addition to being a Mormon), so many believed that the Christian right would eventually find McCain to be the only acceptable option and ensure his nomination.

No other candidate has acquired a lock on the support of religious conservatives. Fred Thompson seemed to be the perfect fit for the Christian right based on his solidly conservative voting record, but he has run an extremely lackluster campaign so far. Mike Huckabee has been gaining support among the grassroots of the religious right, but evangelical leaders have been reluctant to back his candidacy, probably because they fear he has no chance at winning the nomination due to his still-limited name recognition and poor fundraising.

This means that Christian conservatives might still end up backing McCain as the lesser of two (well, actually three) evils. Brownback’s endorsement is the first step in this process, and it means that the old and weathered warrior is certainly not down for the count.