DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Republican Party activists in the Midwest have their minds on next year's presidential race today. Hundreds of GOP-faithful were in Indianapolis for the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference. They heard three presidential hopefuls weigh in on the issues facing their party.

From Indiana Public Broadcasting, Marianne Holland reports.

MARIANNE HOLLAND: When former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee stood before about 700 people inside a hotel conference room in downtown Indianapolis, many in the crowd admitted they knew little about him. His message to them was about a hardworking man with conservative values.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas): Many of us became Republicans not because we favored a particular person on the economic scale but because we believe that life begins at conception; because we believe that marriage is between a man and a woman and that's all it means; and that if we have weak families, we can never have a strong nation.

HOLLAND: When former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney spoke, he called on these Midwestern Republicans to return to party ideals.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts): We're spending way too much money. We're using way too much foreign oil. Our schools aren't just enough. Our health care system is leaving a lot of people behind. Our immigration laws aren't being enforced.

HOLLAND: And when actor and former Senator Fred Thompson's turn came, he foreshadowed a dangerous path for America if Republicans did not maintain control of the White House.

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Former Republican Senator, Tennessee): My friends, I feel like that these next few years are going to bring decisions that we're going to have as a people. And I simply believe that on the present course, that we're going to be a weaker, less prosperous, more divided nation than what we have been.

HOLLAND: But after all the presidential wannabes had had their say, few in this crowd of mostly small-town politicians and party volunteers had settled on any one candidate. Like the Republican contenders at this event, a few people at the conference talked details about the war in Iraq. But Michael Colby(ph), a business analyst from Fishers, Indiana, was candid about the challenge if poses to the GOP in 2008.

Mr. MICHAEL COLBY (Business Analyst, Fishers, Indiana; Retired, U.S. Army): One of the things that's going to work against us unless we can turn people's minds on the thing is we have an unpopular war right now. I'm retired Army. I know what it's - I was in Vietnam and so I know what it's like. And nobody wants anybody to die.

HOLLAND: Romney, Thompson and Huckabee all took strong positions on the hot topics of immigrant, sending a message that America needs to step up border control and enforce laws already on the books. When Mike Huckabee suggested Amazon or FedEx did a better job tracking packages than the American government does tracking people, it resonated with 21-year-old pharmacy technician Jared Sebokeng(ph) of Corydon, Indiana.

Mr. JARED SEBOKENG (Pharmacy Technician): Mike Huckabee's comments on immigration, that's what what sold the show for me today. I really liked - I really enjoyed that. I think that the Republican Party can learn a lot. And I think that if he doesn't get the nomination, he'll be a great, at least, vice president. Even that, at least a cabinet member.

HOLLAND: For those who want a chance at the Republican nomination, a quickly shortening road lies ahead. Like Fred Thompson, who took time in Indiana for some extra handshaking, they'll continue working the crowds until the first primaries, which for now start in January.

Ms. MICHELLE DUNN(ph) (Resident, Indiana): Michelle Dunn from Indiana. It's great meeting you.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you.

Mr. DUNN: I knew who you were the minute you walked in.

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, you do? (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible)

Mr. THOMPSON: No more, no more incognito.

Unidentified Woman #2: Hello.

Mr. THOMPSON: How are you doing?

Unidentified Woman #2: It's nice to meet you. Can I get, like, my picture with you?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes.

HOLLAND: For NPR News, I'm Marianne Holland in Indianapolis.

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