Kansas City, Mo. After taking the first step toward a presidential bid Monday, Sen. Sam Brownback said he would start a 10-state tour with a traditional stop today in Iowa. Then he's going to jail.
The Kansas Republican plans to spend Friday night at Louisiana's notorious state penitentiary in Angola to highlight the problem of recidivism and programs that can help prisoners become law-abiding members of the community.
It's an unusual route, possibly a first for a potential presidential candidate. But the prison stay captures the complexity of Brownback's views and his desire to broaden his appeal beyond religious conservatives who form his natural base.
"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," Brownback said in a statement.
Brownback established an exploratory committee that will allow him to travel the country and raise money while gauging support for his long-shot White House bid.
Brownback, 50, says his deep faith in God guides his well-known opposition to abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem-cell research. He pledged to make "issues of life," fiscal restraint and tax reform key components of his effort to woo supporters.
But his faith also leads him to tackle social injustice around the world. He's spearheaded legislation to fight genocide in Sudan and clamp down on human slave trafficking. Last week, he took an AIDS test with a potential White House rival on the Democratic side - Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois - to encourage others to be tested.
"We believe in a culture of life - that every human life is a beautiful, sacred, unique child of a loving God," Brownback said in a statement on his new Web site.
Brownback has openly weighed a presidential bid for nearly two years but has struggled to build a national profile despite more than a dozen trips to Iowa and other states with early nomination contests.
The senator's best chance to make a splash in Iowa remains with influential members of the GOP's powerful conservative Christian wing. Those voters tend to be skeptical of better-known, more moderate Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who also have established exploratory committees.
The number of possible candidates with a claim to the religious right has shrunk in recent weeks with the defeat of Sen. George Allen of Virginia in the midterm election and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's decision to forgo a run for president.
But with many other contenders expected to jump into the wide-open race, Brownback needs to focus on Iowa and spend as much time as he can to generate more name recognition, said Chuck Hurley, president of the conservative Iowa Family Policy Center and an old law school classmate who's been supporting Brownback.
"The next 30 to 60 days obviously will be critical," Hurley said. "He's really got to describe who he is and get enough recognition that people see for sure that he's serious and that he's credible."
On Monday, Brownback announced 20 members of his exploratory advisory committee, an eclectic mix ranging from anti-abortion activists to business executives. It includes Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, former Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the Rev. Frank Pavone, head of the advocacy group Priests for Life.
Brownback, who grew up on a farm near tiny Parker, Kan., was elected to the U.S. House in 1994 with the wave of Republicans who seized control of Congress. Two years later, he won a special election to succeed Bob Dole in the Senate after Dole left the seat to run for president.
Brownback promised to serve no more than two terms and has said he will not seek re-election in 2010.