WASHINGTON -- Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who is a favorite of social conservatives, announced yesterday that he was taking the first step toward a 2008 White House run by setting up an exploratory committee.
"I have decided, after much prayerful consideration, to consider a bid for the Republican nomination for the presidency," he said in a statement. "There is a real need in our country to rebuild the family and renew our culture, and there is a need for genuine conservatism and real compassion in the national discussion."
The formation of such a committee allows Brownback to begin raising money and test support for a presidential race without making a formal commitment to seek the nomination. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani already have such groups, but neither GOP hopeful has wide appeal among conservatives.
In recent weeks, several candidates on the right have fallen from contention: Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee took himself out of the running, and Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and George Allen of Virginia were defeated in their re-election bids, dashing their presidential hopes. Brownback, a Midwesterner with solid conservative credentials who could corral some of their support, said he would visit 10 states in the next month, starting today in Iowa.
"There's a vacancy on the right, and he may well fit the niche," said Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report. "He's a long shot, but you don't have any shot if you don't throw your hat in the ring."
Raised as a Methodist, Brownback became a Roman Catholic in 2002. He has worked with Democrats on legislation to stop human trafficking, end starvation in Uganda and genocide in Sudan, extend a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants, curb recidivism and ease the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
He has pushed for a Smithsonian museum on African American history and for a federal apology to Native Americans to "help us move toward reconciliation" with two groups that "didn't feel like America had been fair to them."
And, outraged by singer Janet Jackson's 2004 Super Bowl halftime "wardrobe malfunction," he was instrumental in requiring the Federal Communications Commission to increase the fines for indecency on the airwaves.
An opponent of abortion, same-sex marriage and embryonic stem cell research, Brownback often leads meetings of the Values Action Team, where advocacy groups meet to track social conservative legislation.
"He will add a lot to the national, not just the presidential, debate," said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, a group represented at those meetings. "He truly understands the conservative point of view. It is so frustrating for us when politicians try to pander to us. Brownback is consistent."
Elected to the House in the "Republican revolution" of 1994, Brownback ran for the Senate four years later, pledging to serve only two terms.
In an interview this summer with the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, he signaled that he intended to model himself on Ronald Reagan, whom he first supported when Reagan unsuccessfully sought the GOP presidential nomination in 1976.
Brownback, a graduate of Kansas State University and the University of Kansas law school, was raised on his family's farm in Parker, Kan., and served as secretary of the state Board of Agriculture for seven years. He was named a White House Fellow in 1990, working for trade representative Carla Hills. A supporter of free trade and a flat tax, he has voted to authorize trade relations with China and phase out estate and gift taxes. He voted for - and, aides say, still supports - the Iraq war.
"Culturally and geographically, Senator Brownback is a tremendous fit for Iowa - the strongest fit of any candidate, Democrat or Republican," said David Kensinger, his former chief of staff and an informal campaign adviser. "He's clearly going to run as a Reagan Republican."
Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.