WASHINGTON — A year ago, few could have predicted that the three front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination would be a U.S. senator who favors embryonic stem cell research and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a governor who twice campaigned on defending abortion rights, and a former mayor who not only supports gay rights but moved in with a gay couple -- and their pet Shih Tzu -- after the breakup of his second marriage.
But after the Republicans' midterm losses, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani have emerged as their party's presidential favorites, according to public polls, GOP insiders, and Washington pundits. And stunningly for a party that has championed conservative social issues -- like opposing abortion, banning gay marriage, and restricting embryonic stem cell research -- not one of these front-runners is a bona fide social conservative.
"There is no George W. Bush in the field," says one neutral GOP strategist, referring both to Bush's wide appeal in 2000 and his conservative views. That worries some on the right.
"Right now, we're very concerned about it," says Paul Weyrich, chairman and CEO of the conservative Free Congress Foundation. Adds Charmaine Yoest, vice president for communications at the Family Research Council, "There is a certain lack of excitement at the moment."
A look at their records
To see why, just look at the front-runners' records on social issues. McCain, for example, opposes abortion, but he rarely talks about it and once even said during his first presidential bid that he wouldn't support the repeal of Roe v. Wade because that would force women in America to undergo "illegal and dangerous operations". He also co-authored the Senate legislation that would create a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants and give them a path to citizenship. And he voted for legislation to expand funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Romney, moreover, campaigned for the Senate in 1994 and governor in 2002 on protecting a woman's right to have an abortion. "On a personal basis, I don't favor abortion," he said in 2002. "However, as governor of the Commonwealth, I will protect the right of a woman to choose." Also in 2002, Romney stated he would "work and fight" for embryonic stem cell research.
Giuliani, meanwhile, has been a consistent supporter of abortion rights, more federal funding for stem cell research, and civil unions for gays. Indeed, in what could further enrage some religious conservatives, he marched in gay-pride parades as mayor, appeared in drag for a skit at a 1997 black-tie dinner, and even moved in with a gay couple in 2001 after the end of his second marriage.
That kind of record makes Yoest of the Family Research Council shudder. "I think Rudy Giuliani should run against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary," she says. "The Republican base, the conservative base is not going to go for somebody like [him]."
Tilting to the right
Yet with their eyes on the upcoming GOP primaries, which are dominated by conservative voters, all three of the front-runners have begun tilting to the right. In the past year, McCain said he supported (with some caveats) the South Dakota abortion ban that state voters overturned in November, and gave the commencement address at Liberty University, which was founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell, whom McCain once called "evil" during his White House bid in 2000.
Most recently, McCain received an endorsement last Friday from Marlys Popma, a conservative GOP activist in Iowa, who previously served as the president of Iowa's Right to Life Committee and as deputy national political director for 2000 presidential candidate Gary Bauer. In a press release announcing the endorsement, Popma said she was supporting McCain, in part, because of McCain's "willingness to sign pro-life legislation."
Romney now calls himself pro-life and favors leaving it up to the states to determine the legality of abortion. He also now opposes embryonic stem cell research and has asked his state's highest court to force an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment onto the ballot in 2008. And in May, Giuliani stumped for former Christian Coalition honcho Ralph Reed, who lost his bid to be Georgia's lieutenant governor due in part to his ties to convicted GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
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Still, to think that not a single true social conservative is among the current front-runners for the GOP nomination, you would have wondered if the political world had turned upside down.
In a way, it has.
No longer searching for a Bush clone
Democrats next year will control both chambers of Congress. President Bush, who successfully won a second term two years ago, is battling the lame duck label and approval ratings that are stuck below 40 percent. And perhaps most importantly, one prominent conservative Republican who was once seen as possible front-runner -- Sen. George Allen, R-Va. -- lost his bid for re-election.
The GOP's struggles over the past two years arguably also doomed the candidacy of another conservative Republican, Bill Frist, who announced last week that he isn't running for president.
"With the Republicans' loss of the House and the Senate, and with the unpopularity of President Bush, I think that Republicans will look for someone who doesn't remind voters of George Bush," observes Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University.
And Black believes that could possibly strengthen the GOP's hand in the general election. "They need a candidate who can appeal not only to Republicans, but also independents," he says. "That's where Democrats really cleaned up [in 2006] -- with independents."
But would such a candidate alienate social conservatives, to the point where they wouldn't show up to vote in the general election? For Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, it depends on the Democratic candidate. "If it's Hillary, they will swallow hard for anyone," he says, referring to Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. "If not, I think there will be a lot of hand-sitting."
Other Republicans caution, however, that it's too early to predict how conservatives will eventually view Giuliani, McCain, and Romney. Bill Dal Col, a GOP political consultant who ran Steve Forbes' presidential campaign in 2000, says that the candidate-selection process is evolving, and that it's quite likely Republicans will discover someone like Giuliani is more conservative than he appears on paper.
The battle for the conservative mantle
And all three front-runners realize that they will have to be palatable -- in at least some way -- to the right to get their party's nomination. "Remember, you can't get to the big dance unless you appeal to economic conservatives and social conservatives," says Republican Scott Reed, who served as Bob Dole's presidential campaign manager in 1996. In fact, Reed believes that the biggest story of 2007 could be the candidates' battle for the conservative mantle.
Of course, it's possible that a more conservative Republican -- like U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, or maybe even former Speaker Newt Gingrich -- could emerge in the GOP field. Indeed, Weyrich says that some social conservatives are exploring the idea of rallying behind one of these candidates, which could elevate that person's chances.
Brownback filed paperwork on Monday to form a presidential exploratory committee. "I have decided, after much prayerful consideration, to consider a bid for the Republican nomination for the presidency," he said in a statement. "There is a real need in our country to rebuild the family and renew our culture."
But Dal Col, Steve Forbes' former campaign manager, says one of Giuliani, McCain, and Romney will most likely win the nomination. "The reality is the front-runners essentially remain the front-runners. When the dust settles, it will probably be these three names out in front."
And if that's the case, you can expect social conservatives to spend much of 2007 vetting the favorites. "There's a lot at stake," says Yoest of the Family Research Council, "and that's why we won't be messing around when looking at people's records."
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.
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