WASHINGTON -- A new political group recently asked Mitt Romney to promise not to wiretap Americans without a judge's approval or to imprison US citizens without a trial as "enemy combatants." When Romney declined to sign their pledge, the group denounced him as "unfit to serve as president."
Such rhetoric might be expected from liberal activists. But these critics, who call their organization American Freedom Agenda, are hardly leftists. They represent what they insist is a growing group of disaffected conservatives who are demanding that the Republican Party return to its traditional mistrust of concentrated government power.
"Mitt Romney's ignorance of the Constitution's checks and balances and protections against government abuses would have alarmed the Founding Fathers and their conservative philosophy," said Bruce Fein, one of the group's co founders and a Reagan administration attorney, in a press release last month attacking Romney for not signing the pledge.
The American Freedom Agenda, which intends to put all candidates in both parties to the same test, is aiming to revive a strand of conservatism that they say has been drowned out since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The conservative principle of limited government, they say, means not just cutting the budget, but imposing checks and balances on those who wield power.
"Conservatives have to go back to the basics," said co founder Richard Viguerie , a veteran direct-mail strategist and author of "Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause." "We have to go back and re launch the conservative movement. And for traditional conservatives, it's part of our nature to believe in the separation of powers."
The other two co founders are Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia, and David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union .
All four argue that Bush is not a true conservative, and they decided to join forces earlier this year to make the expansion of executive power a topic of debate in the 2008 presidential election. They have applied for tax-exempt status, created a website, and drawn up a 10-point pledge that they intend to ask every candidate to sign.
"I hereby pledge that if elected President of the United States I will undertake the following to restore the Constitution's checks and balances : to honor fundamental protections against injustice, and to eschew usurpations of legislative or judicial power," the pledge reads. "These are keystones of national security and individual freedom."
Other points in the pledge include renouncing the use of presidential signing statements to claim a right to disobey laws; ending threats to prosecute journalists who write about classified matters; and promising to use regular courts rather than military commissions to try terrorism suspects. The full pledge is posted on the group's website, AmericanFreedomAgenda.org.
The group also plans to lobby Congress to pass legislation imposing stronger checks and balances on the presidency. It is urging debate moderators to ask questions of the candidates about their views on the limits of presidential power, and it is planning to host events to raise voter awareness of the issue.
While the group's ambitions are large, it has yet to make a sizable impression on the race.
One presidential candidate -- Representative Ron Paul of Texas, the libertarian-minded Republican who trails far behind GOP front - runners Rudy Giuliani , John McCain , and Romney -- has signed the pledge. Paul called up the American Freedom Agenda and signed its pledge after it announced its existence in March, Fein said.
There are other ties with the Paul campaign. Fein has volunteered to help Paul if any legal fight arises over getting onto a state's primary ballot, and campaign consultant Mark Fitzgibbons, who is Paul's communications director, is also a volunteer adviser to the American Freedom Agenda. But Fein said there is no conflict of interest in the group vetting Paul's rivals.
"I understand you can get an optics problem here, but we have not said we are going to reserve applause to just one candidate," Fein said. "We told Romney that 'we'll single you out and hold a press conference to celebrate you if you sign it,' so I don't think we can be accused of slanting the playing field toward any particular candidate."
They approached Romney first, he added, because they thought he was likely to want such an endorsement by a conservative group. But through Gary Marx , Romney's liaison to conservatives, Romney said he was not going to sign their pledge for now -- prompting the scathing "Conservatives Say Mitt Romney Unfit to Serve as President" press release.
The press release caused some consternation at the Romney headquarters. A spokesman, Kevin Madden , said that Romney did not say he would never sign the pledge, as the press release implied, only that "at this point we're going to take a pass." He declined to comment further.
Some conservatives who have supported Bush's broad claims of executive power are skeptical that the group will get many candidates to sign -- or succeed in making the growth of White House power a topic of debate.
David Rivkin , an associate counsel in the Bush-Quayle administration, argued that neither Republicans nor Democrats mind the aggressive exercise of presidential power if their party controls the White House.
"The notion -- that assertive presidential leadership with a strong view of presidential power is inherently bad -- I think that just won't resonate with the American people," Rivkin said. "Democrats don't like various policies of Bush's, but they would feel quite comfortable if Hillary Clinton were doing it. Republicans are comfortable with Bush doing it, but not so much if Clinton were doing it."
And Charlie Arlinghouse , the president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think-tank in Concord, N.H., said that taxes, terrorism, and Iraq dominate GOP voters' thinking. He said it will require a lot of work for the American Freedom Agenda to raise awareness about the abstract issue of executive power among average New Hampshire voters.
"The notion of executive power is not anything that anyone thinks about while they're mowing their lawn," Arlinghouse said. "So there may be fertile ground here, but someone is going to have to start plowing."
But Fein argued the country would be more secure if the presidency adhered to checks on its power. Such Bush administration policies as authorizing harsh interrogation techniques despite laws and treaties forbidding torture, he said, "are making us more vulnerable" by inflaming anti-American sentiment and "creating new generations of jihadists."
And the group's founders argued that the 2008 election presents a good opportunity for a bipartisan debate about what they see as unchecked executive power. Democrats will view the issue through the prism of the Bush administration, while Republicans will be forced to think about a Democratic presidency, they said.
"As it becomes more and more clear that Hillary Clinton could be the president of the United States, this is going to get a lot of conservatives' attention in a way it hasn't done before in recent years," Viguerie said.