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At conservatives' conference, little love is expressed for GOP

WASHINGTON -- Leading conservatives yesterday attacked the Republican party as big-government, free-spending coddlers of illegal immigrants and said the country's conservatives should withhold support from the GOP's current slate of presidential nominees to force them to the right.

"I feel very angry and betrayed" by the GOP, some of whose elected officials have backed a "guest worker" immigration plan, abortion rights, and tax increases, said Richard Viguerie , chairman of Conservative-HQ.com . "We should withhold support from all major Republican [presidential] candidates today. Not one of them deserves our support today," he told a ballroom full of activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference's annual meeting yesterday.

Further, he said, conservatives should withhold "all support" from GOP national committees, which Viguerie said have not produced federal candidates who adhere to conservative principles.

Ken Blackwell , a failed GOP candidate for Ohio governor last year, agreed that conservatives should at least wait to endorse a presidential candidate. "The Republican Party -- our natural home in a two-party system -- is in disarray," Blackwell lamented.

At least one conference participant sported a sticker that featured a circle with a line drawn through the words "Rudy McRomney" -- broadcasting the wearer's opposition to the early leaders in polls for the GOP nomination, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani , Senator John McCain of Arizona, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney .

Conservatives said they are frustrated and angry, and blamed the GOP's massive losses in the 2006 elections on Republicans who deviated from a hard-line conservative agenda. The mood puts added pressure on a slew of GOP presidential candidates set to speak to the meeting today.

Social conservatives are leery of Giuliani, who supports abortion rights, and of McCain, who authored a campaign finance law that limits interest groups' financial influence in political campaigns. Romney's evolution to a socially conservative agenda pleases some religious conservatives, but some are still unhappy with his earlier, softer positions on gay rights and abortion rights.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has disappointed fiscal conservatives for signing tax increases on gas and cigarettes, while Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas has been criticized for his support of an immigration bill that conservatives insist would give amnesty to illegal immigrants. Phyllis Schlafly, a longtime opponent of gay rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, won loud cheers yesterday when she derided programs to provide bilingual drivers' license tests and to offer low-wage jobs to immigrants instead of "our own high school dropouts."

All of the GOP candidates except McCain are scheduled to appear today before the conference. Representative Duncan Hunter , a lesser-known California Republican running for president, will also speak before the conservative activists.

Kevin Madden , a spokesman for Romney, acknowledged that conservatives are frustrated because of the election losses of 2006. But he said the party -- including its conservative wing -- needs to unite around an agenda and a candidate who can win.

"The conservative movement is going through a certain degree of reflection and renewal," Madden said. "We need to come together and find some unifying themes."

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