Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a favorite of social conservatives, announced Monday that he was taking the first step toward a 2008 White House run by setting up an exploratory committee.
"I have decided, after much prayerful consideration, to consider a bid for the Republican nomination for the presidency," he said in a statement. "There is a real need in our country to rebuild the family and renew our culture, and there is a need for genuine conservatism and real compassion in the national discussion."
The formation of such a committee allows Brownback to begin raising money and testing support for a presidential race without making a formal commitment to seek the nomination. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani already have formed committees, but neither GOP hopeful has wide appeal among conservatives.
In recent weeks, several conservative Republicans have fallen from contention: Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee took himself out of the running, and the unsuccessful reelection bids of Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and George Allen of Virginia dashed their presidential hopes.
Brownback, who could corral some of their support, said he would visit 10 states in the next month, starting today in Iowa.
"Obviously there's a vacancy on the right, and he may well fit the niche," said Stuart Rothenberg of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "He's a longshot -- but you don't have any shot if you don't throw your hat in the ring."
Raised as a Methodist, Brownback became a Roman Catholic in 2002. He has worked with Democrats on bills to stop human trafficking, end starvation in Uganda and genocide in Sudan, extend a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants, curb prison recidivism and ease the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
He has also pushed for a Smithsonian museum on African American history and for a federal apology to Native Americans, to "help us move toward reconciliation" with two groups that "didn't feel like America had been fair to them."
And, outraged by singer Janet Jackson's 2004 Super Bowl halftime "wardrobe malfunction," he was instrumental in requiring the Federal Communications Commission to increase the fines for indecency on the airwaves.
An opponent of abortion, same-sex marriage and embryonic stem-cell research, Brownback often leads meetings of the Values Action Team, where advocacy groups meet to track social conservative legislation.
"He will add a lot to the national, not just the presidential, debate," said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, a group represented at those meetings. "He truly understands the conservative point of view. It is so frustrating for us when politicians try to pander to us. Brownback is consistent."
Elected to the House in the "Republican revolution" of 1994, Brownback won his Senate seat two years later in a special election to replace Bob Dole, who had quit to run for president.
In an interview this summer with the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, he signaled that he intended to model himself on Ronald Reagan, whom he first supported when Reagan unsuccessfully sought the GOP presidential nomination in 1976.
"In 1980 the message and the moment and the person came together in Reagan," Brownback said. "Maybe I get into it to develop this philosophy, to lay it out.... And if people aren't ready for it yet
Brownback, a graduate of Kansas State University and the University of Kansas law school, was raised on his family's farm in Parker, Kan., and served as secretary of the Kansas Board of Agriculture for seven years. He was named a White House fellow in 1990, working for Trade Representative Carla Hills.
A supporter of free trade and a flat tax, he has voted to authorize trade relations with China and to phase out estate and gift taxes.
He voted for -- and, aides say, still supports -- the Iraq war.
"Culturally and geographically, Sen. Brownback is a tremendous fit for Iowa -- the strongest fit of any candidate, Democrat or Republican," said David Kensinger, his former chief of staff and an informal campaign advisor. "He's clearly going to run as a Reagan Republican."
Brownback is entering an open field. On the GOP side, Rep. Duncan Hunter of El Cajon has also formed an exploratory committee. Other Republicans eyeing a race include Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, George E. Pataki of New York and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack is the only Democrat who has formally announced he is running; on Sunday, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana said he was setting up an exploratory committee. Other potential Democratic candidates include Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark.