DES MOINES, Iowa — It's just past 8:30 a.m. on a snowy weekend morning when the unassuming presidential candidate strolls into a hotel conference room.
"Hey, folks. I'm Sam Brownback. Good to meet you," says the Republican senator from Kansas, personally greeting the sparse crowd of some two dozen people munching on pastries and sipping coffee.
Standing at the podium, Brownback eschews talk of his accomplishments and criticism of his better-known rivals. Instead, he explains where he stands on various issues and seeks to define himself for the right-leaning GOP voters who matter in primaries - "a full-scale, economic and social conservative with a smile."
With the GOP's influential conservative wing still scrambling for a candidate to back for the 2008 nomination, Brownback presents a paradox.
Brownback has the kind of unquestioned credentials as a family values crusader that conservatives have long sought in a presidential candidate. Yet he hasn't been able to leverage his credentials to break out of a crowded pack of White House hopefuls.
One potential reason: Some Republicans fear he may be too conservative to win a national election.
"We realize that right now probably the Republican Party is the underdog in the presidential race," said Mike Mahaffey, a former Iowa state GOP chairman who has not backed anyone yet. "We're looking for the candidate who can win that race."
The top-tier candidates - Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney - are viewed as more electable than Brownback but all have political vulnerabilities and histories that make them suspect to conservatives.
Still, the three are outpacing Brownback in building solid national campaigns, with Giuliani and McCain leading in national popularity polls. Brownback barely registers in such surveys.
Brownback, nevertheless, sees a significant opportunity to emerge as the right-flank's choice.
"The beauty of it for me is, you've got the three guys with more money and organization to my left in a conservative party," Brownback told The Associated Press, despite the fact that McCain's voting record is very much in line with his.
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Still, Brownback concedes the challenges that lie ahead as an underdog.
"Every day you're just kind of scratching and climbing and moving forward," he said.
For years, Brownback has had a loyal national following among cultural and religious conservatives. They gravitate toward his fierce opposition to abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem-cell research, and his embrace of the Bible's teachings.
An evangelical Protestant who converted to Catholicism, Brownback is so conservative on social issues that he held up the nomination of a Michigan judge to the federal bench over her attendance at a lesbian commitment ceremony in Massachusetts in 2002.
He has tried to shepherd through Congress legislation that would create a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. And, last week, he stood alone in backing the Pentagon's top general, Peter Pace, over his remarks that homosexual acts are immoral.
Iraq and immigration
As he campaigns, Brownback hopes to expand his base of loyalists to include more economic conservatives by emphasizing lower taxes and reduced spending. His record on that front won praise last week from the national anti-tax group Club for Growth, which called him a "defender of economic freedom."
Two issues, however, could hamper him with some Republicans - immigration and the Iraq war.
Some conservatives don't like his support of a temporary guest-worker program for a chunk of the some 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States even though he contends his view is consistent with the teachings of his faith. Others are turned off by his opposition to President Bush's troop increase in Iraq, which he calls incomplete because of the need for a political solution.
Key conservative primaries
In Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Brownback focuses on securing the backing of grass-roots organizations and religious groups to validate his conservative resume and help him turn out voters so he can compete with candidates who have the money and star power.
The conservative constituency is powerful in two of three states that hold early nominating contests. Exit polling from 2000 shows that 37 percent of voters in Iowa's GOP caucuses and 34 percent of voters in South Carolina's Republican primary identified themselves as members of the "white religious right." The group was smaller - just 16 percent - in New Hampshire.
By his own admission, Brownback must perform strongly in Iowa. So, he campaigns there once a week, usually meeting with small groups of potential supporters in venues like the hotel conference room.
Making the pitch
On this day, he looks relaxed in khaki slacks and a cream-colored sweater over a button-down shirt as he gives his low-key stump speech, one hand clutching a cup of coffee, the other hand in his pocket.
First, he rattles through his biography: his upbringing on a Kansas farm in a small town, his 25-year marriage and five kids, his Midwestern education.
Then, he gives his fiscal-restraint pitch: an alternative flat tax, personal Social Security savings accounts, a commission to identify and eliminate government waste.
Next, he talks of the need for a "moral reformation" in the country: outlaw abortion, marriage defined as a union of man and a woman, and faith permitted in the public square.
And, he mentions his national security vision: the war on terrorism won, a political solution in Iraq, and immigration reform that blends the rule of law with compassion.
Finally, he says: "I can win. I need you to win this. Iowa is key."
Some of those who attended knew very little about Brownback but showed up out of curiosity. Immigration dominated questions for the senator, an indication that the issue could be a sticking point for him in Iowa. Afterward, several said they'd be interested in learning more about him.
David Hennessy of Ankeny, Iowa, said Brownback earned points for acknowledging that while people want easy answers on immigration, there are none. "He was very forthcoming and honest with his assessment," he said.
"He has some good conservative ideas that focus on the family," said Marsha Kephart from Carlisle, Iowa, who checked him out on the Internet early that morning.
Andrew Wrightsman of Waukee, Iowa, said he liked what he heard about Social Security and other financial matters. "He's great as long as he sticks to it and doesn't wane under pressure," he said.
Brownback's main advantage, analysts say, is his consistency on conservative issues.
Said Peverill Squire, a University of Iowa political science professor: "He doesn't have some of the questions about his credentials that others do."
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