Conservatives Eye Wide-Open Presidential Field

Who will carry the flag for conservative Republicans in the 2008 presidential race. Will it be Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney? Arizona Sen. John McCain? Or someone else?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In this country, presidential contenders are refining their views of the war. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee told NBC yesterday that he is taking steps to run, which raised the question of whether he still supports the president's approach in Iraq.

Governor MIKE HUCKABEE (Republican, Arkansas): He's had a lot of struggles, particularly in managing the war in Iraq. We did a great job of going in and toppling Saddam Hussein. The tough part has been bringing some sense of stability there. And so it's been a struggle for the president. I think the domestic agenda has also been something that's almost been ignored and overlooked because we have spent so much of the time on Iraq.

INSKEEP: Governor Huckabee is one of several Republicans seeking conservative votes.

And the selection of candidates was a major topic for leading conservatives over the weekend. They gathered in Washington for the National Review Institute's Conservative Summit.

Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: It's only natural that in the last two years of a presidential term, the base of the party in power looks ahead. But this year that trend is even more pronounced, because for the first time in half a century there's no heir apparent in the White House, no vice president laying the groundwork for a campaign of his own.

The field is wide open, says strategist Vin Weber, and conservatives are thinking about the post-Bush era that will begin with the next election.

Mr. VIN WEBER (Political Strategist): For the conservative movement, it seems to represent a watershed election in that we've come to the end of a series of conservative leaders, you know, starting with Barry Goldwater through of course the Reagan years, and then President Bush. So conservatives are looking for a new leader and they are looking for the agenda that takes them forward in the 21st century.

LIASSON: Vin Weber has found his new leader. Although he was active in Senator John McCain's race for president in 2000, this year he's signed up with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Mr. WEBER: I was a supporter of Senator McCain in 2000. I count him as a friend. I count myself as a great admirer of his. I am simply convinced that the Republican Party and the conservative movement need a new, fresh face to take us forward in the 2008 election.

(Soundbite of people mingling)

Mr. MARK HARRIS: Nice to meet you, good. My name is Mark Harris. I run (unintelligible) Social Security.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Massachusetts Governor): I heard about you. Nice to meet you. I heard about your group.

Mr. ROMNEY: (Unintelligible) members?

Mr. HARRIS: Six thousand members.

Mr. ROMNEY: I heard about that.

LIASSON: Romney was the dinner speaker at the Conservative Summit on Saturday night. He got a warm if not wildly enthusiastic reception. He explained how he transferred the skills that made him a successful venture capitalist into state government. And he made sure to touch all the bases for this conservative crowd.

On big government…

Mr. ROMNEY: Spending in Washington is simply out of control.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: And on taxes…

Mr. ROMNEY: By the way, I saw Grover Norquist here. I'm proud to be - I think I'm the first person who is thinking about an '08 race who has signed his taxpayer protection pledge not to raise taxes, and that - that's easy.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: For Romney, the fiscal issues are easy. It's the social issues that may be a little more difficult. As recently as 2002, when he ran for governor, Romney was pro-choice and in favor of stem-cell research. In 2005, he changed his views.

Mr. ROMNEY: On abortion, I wasn't always a Ronald Reagan conservative. Either was Ronald Reagan, by the way. But like him, I learned with experience.

LIASSON: Romney had a similar evolution on gay rights. All that could pose a problem for him in a Republican primary, although conservatives like Chris Shuman(ph) are willing to hear him out.

Mr. CHRIS SHUMAN: I mean I'm always skeptical of those who suddenly change their position about things. If it's a sincere transformation, I don't have a problem with it.

LIASSON: Like most of the activists at the National Review Summit, Shuman says he wants a candidate who takes a back-to-basics approach to conservatism; someone who can help Republicans return to their roots of smaller government, lower taxes, a tough approach to the war on terror, and of course he wants someone who can win.

Shuman says he's open to any of the leading candidates - John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Romney. But Damian Harvey(ph) says he's ruled out one of the early frontrunners already. Harvey, who calls himself a Limbaugh conservative, says he could never vote for John McCain.

Mr. DAMIAN HARVEY: He's a traitor and I can't stand him. And I've watched for the last six years him stick a knife in W's back and then slowly twist it on a lot of different issues.

LIASSON: McCain's supporters acknowledge this kind of distrust, and they say they're making headway where it counts among conservative activists in key primary states. But right now there is no single Republican candidate who has captured the allegiance of the conservative base of the party, and that's why the early competition to impress these insiders and activists is so intense.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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