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Conservative core seeks a contender

Times Staff Writer

For decades, the conservative movement has been the animating force of the Republican Party, providing the ideas and energy that catapulted candidates to the GOP presidential nomination and, often, the White House.

But as conservatives survey the 2008 field -- and, particularly, the early Republican front-runners -- many are despairing. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani have all broken with conservative orthodoxy at one time or another. Many activists have neither forgiven nor forgotten.

“There’s absolutely no contender that is a bona fide conservative,” said K.B. Forbes, who has worked for a number of conservative candidates and causes since the 1990s. “We have insiders, squishes and moderates running for president.”

The candidate closest to the heart of social conservatives, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, plans to formally launch his White House bid today with a speech in Topeka. But even those who admire Brownback, and especially his Senate leadership opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research, question the viability of his candidacy.

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“Brownback has to prove he can win,” said Richard Land, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Land sees different problems for the three leading GOP hopefuls. “Most social conservatives at present are uncomfortable with McCain,” he said. “They’re appalled by Giuliani.” As for Romney, Land said, “He has to convince social conservatives he’s become one of them.”

It’s a striking state of affairs, given the ascendance of the conservative movement since 1964. Although he was crushed in the general election that year, Arizona’s Barry Goldwater wrested the Republican Party from its Midwest and Eastern roots, starting a realignment that eventually turned the GOP into the party of Ronald Reagan, the Sunbelt and the South.

The absence of a purebred conservative candidate this time, at least among the early leaders, is partly happenstance. Favorites such as Vice President Dick Cheney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have chosen not to run. Former Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who was positioning himself as heir to the Reagan mantle, was defeated for reelection in perhaps the biggest upset of 2006, as was ex-Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a hero to many evangelicals.

But some believe more is at work. They blame the failings of the GOP-run Congress, which dimmed several rising stars and sank the presidential ambitions of one conservative favorite, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. Beyond that, some see indications that, after 40-plus years, the conservative movement has reached a turning point. They cite growing tensions between economic and religious conservatives, as well as fallout from the war in Iraq, which a growing number of Republicans consider a mistake.

Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer who has spent years in the conservative trenches, said the GOP has veered badly off course, running up record deficits, pursuing a Wilsonian foreign policy -- “making the world safe for democracy” -- and becoming overly intrusive in people’s private lives, whether intervening in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case or seeking to ban gambling on the Internet.

“The conservative movement was never about government virtue,” said Shirley, who suggested Republicans may be destined for a time in the wilderness unless the party returns to its core principles of limited government and a more pragmatic foreign policy.

Others disagree.

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“Each of these guys is jostling each other, McCain, Giuliani and Romney, to be dead center of where Reagan was. No one is competing to run as the Nixon Republican, or the Rockefeller Republican,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, which asks every presidential candidate to sign a pledge vowing never to raise taxes. So far, Brownback and Romney have taken the pledge, the latter after declining to do so while Massachusetts governor.

“Strong national defense, individual freedom and responsibility, traditional moral values -- the ideas are still there,” said Lee Edwards, a conservative scholar at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Still relevant. Still resonant.”

But even Edwards conceded that many conservatives “are sort of holding back a little bit” before committing to any of the Republicans running. “We still have to wait and see what positions they do take,” Edwards said.

Sensing opportunity, several candidates with strong conservative credentials -- if not the name recognition or fundraising potential of a McCain, Giuliani or Romney -- are looking to enter the Republican race. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is expected to make an announcement by the end of the month. Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore has formed an exploratory committee. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who also served as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, has as well. So has Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a crusader against illegal immigration. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who excites friends and foes like few other politicians, has said he might enter the race in the fall.

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Meantime, the front-running candidates are ceding nothing in the fight for conservative backing -- even if it sometimes requires a sharp right-hand turn.

McCain, whose 2000 rivalry with President Bush lingered long after, has become one of the president’s strongest supporters in Iraq and eased his opposition to tax cuts he once deemed excessive. He has signed up conservative activists in Iowa and South Carolina, states he lost in 2000 and, most conspicuously, reached out to religious conservatives -- including the Rev. Jerry Falwell -- whom he once dubbed “agents of intolerance.”

Romney, who said he favored abortion rights when he ran for governor in 2002, now describes himself as “firmly pro-life.” After once casting himself as a strong supporter of gay rights, Romney has become an outspoken foe of same-sex marriage.

Giuliani, who has favored legal abortion, gay rights and certain gun controls, is expected to stress leadership over ideology if he decides to run.

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But many activists remain to be convinced. McCain’s support for a friendlier immigration policy continues to rankle -- the National Review dubbed him “Amnesty John” -- as does the campaign-finance law he championed. Earlier this week, Christian leader James Dobson said he would not support McCain under any circumstance. The senator, who has a solid anti-abortion record but opposes a federal ban on same-sex marriage, said he would like to talk.

Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, suggested that conservatives would eventually support the GOP nominee. “Social conservatives understand in their bones, in their genetic structure, that what’s at stake in [2008] is probably the Supreme Court for the rest of their lifetimes,” Land said. “I don’t see social conservatives sitting this one out.”

But Forbes is not so sure. “We really learned our lesson with Schwarzenegger,” said Forbes, who worked on Bill Simon’s 2002 campaign for California governor. “The Republicans wanted to win at any cost. They elected someone who claimed to be a conservative and look what you’ve got -- a governor who’s talking about state-controlled healthcare.”

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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