WASHINGTON - Some leading conservative activists say they plan to screen 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls, perhaps as early as this fall, in hopes of finding a candidate they can endorse as a group.
Religious and social conservatives, long an influential power center within the Republican Party, have been stepping up their efforts in the months since the 2004 election, when conservative Christian voters played a key role in helping President Bush gain a second term.
With an eye toward the post-Bush succession fight, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said yesterday that he and other conservative activists would like to "interview some of the candidates" sometime this fall and determine whether a single candidate merits their support.
"We would like to see where they stand on issues. What their platforms are," Perkins told a group of reporters. The goal would be for these leaders to "stay together" behind one candidate and then "educate our constituencies," he added.
Religious and social conservatives play an outsize role in Republican nominating contests, including in key early states such as Iowa and South Carolina. Perkins said that if a candidate were to emerge who clearly had the support of the conservative movement, that candidate would "unquestionably" have the edge in becoming the Republican nominee.
Among early contenders vying for the nod of religious and social conservatives are Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and George Allen of Virginia. All have been active, both publicly and behind the scenes, in wooing religious, social and cultural conservatives in advance of the next presidential contest.
In recent Republican campaigns, presidential candidates have emerged out of the religious-conservative movement, including the Rev. Pat Robertson in 1988 and Gary L. Bauer, who was Perkins' predecessor at the Family Research Council, in 2000. That isn't expected to happen next time, however; instead, established politicians, such as Frist, Brownback and Allen, are making a concerted appeal to become the favorite candidate of religious and social conservatives.
Other activists likely to be part of the conservative endorsement effort, Perkins indicated, are Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation; James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association; Bauer, president of American Values, and perhaps a dozen or more others.
A similar endorsement effort by some of the same activists went nowhere in the 2000 contest, when George W. Bush established himself as an early favorite and "nobody wanted to be on the other side of him," said Bauer, who unsuccessfully sought the endorsement that year.
Bauer, who thinks prospective candidates might not be willing to meet with the activists until after the 2006 midterm election, predicted that it would be "very hard" to settle on a single candidate. He noted that several of the likely Republican contenders have "pretty darn good credentials" on issues of importance to religious and social conservatives, such as fighting gay marriage and outlawing abortion.
Still, he added, the competition for the support of conservative activists was important and sure to be hard-fought.
'Like a primary'
"In its own way, it's like a primary," Bauer said.
Perkins' organization has a lengthy wish list for the current Congress, including passage of a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman; and another measure, sponsored by Brownback, that would require women seeking certain abortions to be told that a fetus feels pain during the procedure. He had praise for several potential candidates.
Frist, he said, had impressed many conservatives with his leadership of the Senate. "He's been staying the course" in the fight to overcome Democratic opposition to some of Bush's judicial nominees.
Perkins also mentioned Brownback and Allen as strong contenders and predicted that other candidates would emerge before 2008 who could appeal to social and religious conservatives.
The maverick factor
Not on the activist's list, despite a conservative voting record that includes opposition to abortion rights in most cases, is John McCain. The Arizona senator's prominent role in the recent "Gang of 14" compromise on judicial nominees helped "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory," Perkins said.
McCain, a maverick, "is in a category all by himself," Perkins said. "I also do not see him getting any support from social conservatives."
Longtime activist Weyrich expressed optimism that the group would agree on a candidate, though he said he did not expect that to happen until sometime in 2007.
"There's a sense in the movement that we really have got to back somebody, or else we're going to end up with somebody we really don't like" as the nominee, he said, putting McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a social moderate, into that category.