GOP Candidates In Race To Prove Conservatism

Republican candidates are battling in New Hampshire this weekend, ahead of Tuesday's make-or-break primary. With six main candidates still in the race, a main point of contention among them is: Who's the REAL conservative?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

All this weekend, we'll be taking a look at the race for the GOP presidential nomination. Tomorrow, Pat Buchanan and Gary Hart on going the distance in New Hampshire. Our cover story today: conservatism at the crossroads. Every candidate claims to be the true conservative, but which one is? And what does that mean anyway? In a moment, three conservatives and three perspectives. But first to NPR's Andrea Seabrook.

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: Think you know what conservative is? Well, these guys do.

NEWT GINGRICH: When people say I'm not conservative, you almost have to wonder what planet they've been on.

MITT ROMNEY: You know, I'm a conservative Republican.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: Michele Bachmann is the proven conservative.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: And they're finding that I am a consistent conservative.

GINGRICH: Consistent conservative.

ROMNEY: Reagan conservative.

GINGRICH: A moral conservative...

ROMNEY: John Adams conservative.

GINGRICH: Foreign policy conservative.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Tested conservative.

PERRY: Fiscal conservative.

ROMNEY: I'm more conservative than I was 10 years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There are folks that are talking conservative, but their records don't reflect conservatism.

SEABROOK: The Republican presidential contenders, including Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann. Pawlenty and Bachmann have already dropped out of the race. But the rest are in a cut-throat, do-or-die battle to be the most conservative, the real conservative in the bunch.

What does that mean? Well, it depends on who you ask. Texas Congressman Ron Paul often identifies himself as a conservative first and a Republican second.

REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: The big difference is that if you're going to be conservative, you're supposed to follow the Constitution and always limit the power and the scope of the federal government.

SEABROOK: This libertarian strain is very different from how former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum sees it.

RICK SANTORUM: That is not how traditional conservatives view the world. And I think most conservatives understand that individuals can't go it alone. That there is no such society that I'm aware of where we've had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

SEABROOK: Santorum is more of a social conservative. He believes the government has an important role to play in steering culture toward moral ends. That's practically the opposite of Ron Paul's conservatism. A clue to this fault line is in the actual definition of the word. The Oxford English Dictionary says conservative includes both the, quote, "tendency to resist great or sudden change," sounds like Ron Paul. And, quote, "the adherence to traditional values and ideas." That would be Santorum.

One thing both candidates do have: a lot of doubt about the conservative credentials of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

ROMNEY: What I say is I'm a conservative businessman.

SEABROOK: Romney avoids the finer points of the argument, and says he's all kinds of conservative wrapped in one.

ROMNEY: Social conservatism, economic conservative, and foreign policy conservatism. I still have those same views today...

SEABROOK: This race to the right will likely resolve when Republicans settle on a nominee. At that point, the candidate can stop fighting for segments of the conservative base. And the working definition of conservatism will become: not Barack Obama.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

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