Archive for Monday, February 5, 2007

GOP seeks real conservative

February 5, 2007


Republican conservatives are unhappy. They don't have a presidential candidate.

Their favorites aren't running, and they don't see a "real" conservative in the top tier of the GOP field.

There's no sign the situation will change before the decisive caucuses and primaries a year from now - if then. Conservatives may have to choose between a front-runner who professes fealty to conservative causes but whose devotion is suspect or a lesser-known candidate with only an outside chance.

The disquiet stems largely from polls showing the two front-runners as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who provoked the enmity of conservatives in his unsuccessful 2000 bid and with some of his congressional votes, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who supports abortion rights, gun control and gay marriage.

The fastest-rising contender is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is wooing conservatives but once campaigned as a backer of abortion rights and urged a bigger role for gays and lesbians in the GOP.

Romney turned up last weekend at a conservative conference sponsored by the National Review Institute and got mixed notices. The weekend's star: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

But the president's brother insists he won't run in 2008 - at least not for president. He's one of several non-candidates who look good to some conservatives.

In a column last month in the Capitol Hill publication The Hill, Texas Republican pollster David Hill dismissed the McCain and Romney candidacies and suggested two "big name true blue conservatives": former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and former Vice President Dan Quayle.

There's no sign that the GOP electorate - or the two men themselves - are interested. Their last political outings hardly demanded an encore.

One reason for the conservative void is the 2006 defeat of former Sens. George Allen of Virginia and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and a decision by former Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee not to run.

But that doesn't mean there is no GOP aspirant with a record that social conservatives could readily support. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas is a solid conservative who recently criticized President Bush's plan to increase U.S. forces in Iraq. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is a folksy former Baptist minister from Bill Clinton's hometown of Hope; however, he did raise taxes while governor.

Former Gov. James Gilmore of Virginia talks of running as a "Reagan conservative," though he is little known and left Virginia in some fiscal trouble. Two House members, Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Tom Tancredo of Colorado, are also wooing the right.

But all of them have a long way to go. None even merited a mention from Hill, who seemed mainly concerned with questioning the motivations of McCain and Romney. Both "possess some conservative credentials," he conceded, but "neither of them seems particularly interested in being the 'real' conservative.

"They are already moving to the center to win the general election, and this could be their undoing if a genuine conservative enters the fray," the Texas pollster added.

Actually, that's not quite right. McCain and Romney seem preoccupied with proving their conservative "bona fides." That translates to Romney disavowing past policy statements and McCain doing the same regarding past skepticism about tax cuts.

One thing is clear: Republicans have tended to do better with nominees like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who drew the enthusiastic support of conservatives, than with those who attracted less fervent backing, like Gerald Ford, the elder George Bush and Bob Dole.

- Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.


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