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Looking past the candidates

Conservatives shift focus to Congress

WASHINGTON -- Conservative activists are shifting their 2008 focus to recapturing the House and Senate, hoping that GOP control of at least one chamber of Congress would thwart liberal policies that could come either from a Democratic or moderate Republican White House.

Conservative leaders, who are gathering in Washington today for the first Conservative Political Action Conference meeting since the Republican Party's electoral defeat last year, acknowledged in interviews that it will be difficult to reclaim control of Congress. But faced with a pack of GOP presidential contenders with spotty conservative credentials, the party's fiscal and social conservatives say they are making a special effort to reclaim power on Capitol Hill to hold the next White House in line.

"For years, the party was completely president-centric, and put all their efforts into keeping the presidency," said Grover Norquist , president of Americans for Tax Reform. "But going into 2008, it's going to be equally important to pick up the House and Senate. Now, people recognize you can govern from either body," not just the White House, Norquist said.

Paul Weyrich , president of the Free Congress Foundation, said the party's top-tier presidential candidates -- including Arizona Senator John McCain, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani , and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney -- are too liberal for many conservatives.

"If we can't play a role in the presidential [election] , then at least let's elect some senators and congressmen. Maybe we can play a role in Congress," Weyrich said.

Bill Lauderback , executive vice president of the American Conservative Union, agreed: "2008 is not just about the White House. It's about maintaining conservative principles within the public policy debate," he said.

Conservative activists are not optimistic, however. In the Senate, for example, 21 seats now held by Republicans will be contested; Democrats have just 12 to defend. An unpopular president and an equally unpopular war in Iraq are troublesome for GOP candidates for the House and Senate, said Pat Toomey , president of the anti tax Club for Growth and a former GOP House member from Pennsylvania.

But faced with the current crop of GOP presidential contenders, activists say they will need to work harder to elect genuine social and fiscal conservatives to Congress, especially to the Senate, which votes on judicial nominations.

Conservatives appear to have a problem with virtually every one of the GOP contenders, and fear that any of them is liable to split the party and hurt its chances in Congress.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback , for example, have solid antiabortion, antigay-marriage records that please social conservatives, said Dr. Richard Land , president of the Southern Baptist Convention's ethics and religious liberty commission. But fiscal conservatives led by the Club for Growth have complained that Huckabee raised taxes on gas and cigarettes, while anti-immigration forces assail Brownback for backing President Bush's plan to allow "guest workers" to come to the United States and eventually become citizens.

Giuliani, meanwhile, has won the support of some Capitol Hill Republicans and has impressed fiscal conservatives with his talk about taking the party back to pro-growth, economically conservative roots. But Southern evangelicals would never vote for a man who has been married three times and who supports abortion rights, Land said. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich , a Georgia Republican who appeals to fiscal conservatives and who has not entered the race, would face similar problems with religious conservatives because of his messy divorces, he added.

"If either party has a [presidential] candidate their natural constituencies aren't really excited about, it's going to be a drag on the rest of the ticket," he said.

McCain, meanwhile, has angered conservatives for his authorship of a sweeping campaign finance law that limits the financial support interest groups can give to campaigns and candidates. Romney has been campaigning on a solidly conservative agenda, but many conservatives are concerned about the former Massachusetts governor's earlier, softer positions on abortion and gay rights.

"The field of candidates in general is going to be imperfect," Toomey said. "Everybody's got a mixed record."

Gary Bauer , a former GOP presidential candidate who is now president of American Values, agreed.

"I think at least for social conservatives, they're still hoping that either somebody will emerge [as the leader], or perhaps somebody else will jump into the race, that will increase the enthusiasm level in the Republican sweepstakes," he said. But "I do think we've got to be more involved in the House and Senate and state legislative races" to help give conservatives a Washington perch from which to build national support, he said.

House Republicans lauded the activists' attention to the House and Senate races, saying a GOP-run Congress could help the party get back to its conservative roots and articulate its message better to the American public.

Representative Jeb Hensarling , Republican of Texas and the chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, said a GOP House could restore the conservative brand of the Republican Party in the absence of a true conservative in the White House.

"We've got to convince the American people that we didn't go native, that we got the message and will stick to our [conservative] principles," Hensarling said.

Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana and a leading House conservative, said that McCain, Giuliani, and Romney all "have something going against my conservative ideology, and even some of the lesser candidates have problems."

As a result, Pence said, he is concentrating on reestablishing conservatism at the place where all legislation is hatched. "The House of Representatives has always been the beachhead of the right in Washington, D.C.," said Pence.

Susan Milligan can be reached at s_milligan@globe.com

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