Conservatives Seek a Standard Bearer

True conservatives face a crisis of the soul in these early days of the 2008 presidential campaign. A National Review summit will try to determine who conservatives should get behind.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Another Republican is joining the race for president. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee announced his intentions this morning on "Meet the Press" and he'll file papers tomorrow establishing a presidential exploratory committee. Huckabee, who's pro-life and anti-gay marriage, will be competing for the support of the social conservative base of the GOP.

No candidate has captured the hearts of conservative Republicans yet, although plenty are trying. This weekend, conservatives gathered in Washington at the National Review summit to talk about the future of conservatism and to hear from another Republican presidential, Mitt Romney.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson was there.

Mara, welcome.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: So you've been hanging out with the conservatives this weekend. What do they say they learned in November?

LIASSON: Well, they say they learned that it's time to go back to basics, back to conservative principles, back to small government - which they think the Bush administration has betrayed - back to conservative judges and low taxes, and to the social issues. They don't feel their principles were rejected in November. On the contrary, they feel Republicans lost because conservative principles weren't followed. So there's a sense that Republicans in some ways got what they deserved.

One thing that they all are focused on is 2008 and the presidential race, because for the first time in 50 years there is no heir apparent in the White House and there is a wide-open field.

ROBERTS: So John McCain's name is out there, Rudy Giuliani, now Mike Huckabee. I understand Mitt Romney spoke last night. How was he received?

LIASSON: Romney was received with what I would call a more than polite reception, maybe less than wild enthusiasm. Conservatives like his business background. They feel that he's a fresh face. He has changed his views on abortion and other social issues, which he discusses very frankly. He talks about his evolution. He says I wasn't always a Ronald Reagan conservative, but then again, neither was Ronald Reagan. Reagan signed abortion bills and raised taxes as governor of California.

And people I talked to seemed accepting of that explanation. I would say people are very, very open to his candidacy.

ROBERTS: And what about John McCain? He's leading in a lot of polls. He's got a lot of problems with conservatives in his own party.

LIASSON: Yes, he does. There is a sizable number of people I talked to last night who will not vote for John McCain under any circumstances. They don't feel he's a real conservative. They feel he's broken with conservative orthodoxy too many times on campaign finance reform, or on torture, or tax cuts, or judicial filibuster. But others say that he gets so much credit for his steadfast support of the war, which is still relatively popular among Republicans and conservatives, that that makes up for his other maverick positions. And of course conservatives are also thinking about electability; the fact that he is 70 years old; he would be the oldest president when he's elected. He has had health problems. That's a worry to some people. On the other hand, he has tremendous appeal to moderates in a general election and that's a positive for him.

There's also a lot of interest in Rudy Giuliani, which is interesting to me, because it tells you how open conservatives are this year. They are willing to overlook his liberal views on social issues. He's pro-gay rights, pro-gun control, pro-choice. I don't know if that will happen on a widespread basis in the Republican Party, but Giuliani is also leading in some polls in a lot of the key primary states.

ROBERTS: Well, speaking of widespread Republican support, I mean in some ways does it really matter what a bunch of folks in Washington think? I mean isn't it more important what primary voters in some of the early primaries are talking about?

LIASSON: Yes. And these candidates are going to the early primary states to meet voters in their living rooms and in the diners. Romney's going to South Carolina tomorrow and Tuesday. Rudy Giuliani is in New Hampshire this weekend. But you know, especially at this very early stage of the race, before primary voters really start paying attention, people like conservative activists do play a very important role. They can't necessarily deliver votes, but they do deliver word of mouth and blogs and columns, and that adds up to what's known as buzz nowadays, and it helps to raise money. And the race is really on right now to be seen as the true conservative candidate. And that's why presidential hopefuls are in Washington courting influential people, like the ones I talked to last night.

ROBERTS: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Tomorrow morning, NPR's Juan Williams interviews President Bush at the White House, the president's first broadcast interview since his State of the Union address. You'll be able to hear excerpts from the interview on NPR News throughout the day with the full conversation airing on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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