For decades, the conservative movement has been the animating force of the Republican Party, providing the ideas and energy that catapulted candidates to the GOP presidential nomination and, often, the White House.
But as conservatives survey the 2008 field -- and, particularly, the early Republican front-runners -- many are despairing. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani have all broken with conservative orthodoxy at one time or another. Many activists have neither forgiven nor forgotten.
"There's absolutely no contender that is a bona fide conservative," said K.B. Forbes, who has worked for a number of conservative candidates and causes since the 1990s. "We have insiders, squishes and moderates running for president."
The candidate closest to the heart of social conservatives, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, plans to formally launch his White House bid today with a speech in Topeka. But even those who admire Brownback, and especially his Senate leadership opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research, question the viability of his candidacy.
"Brownback has to prove he can win," said Richard Land, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
Land sees different problems for the three leading GOP hopefuls. "Most social conservatives at present are uncomfortable with McCain," he said. "They're appalled by Giuliani." As for Romney, Land said, "He has to convince social conservatives he's become one of them."
It's a striking state of affairs, given the ascendance of the conservative movement since 1964. Although he was crushed in the general election that year, Arizona's Barry Goldwater wrested the Republican Party from its Midwest and Eastern roots, starting a realignment that eventually turned the GOP into the party of Ronald Reagan, the Sunbelt and the South.
The absence of a purebred conservative candidate this time, at least among the early leaders, is partly happenstance. Favorites such as Vice President Dick Cheney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have chosen not to run. Former Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who was positioning himself as heir to the Reagan mantle, was defeated for reelection in perhaps the biggest upset of 2006, as was ex-Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a hero to many evangelicals.
But some believe more is at work. They blame the failings of the GOP-run Congress, which dimmed several rising stars and sank the presidential ambitions of one conservative favorite, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. Beyond that, some see indications that, after 40-plus years, the conservative movement has reached a turning point. They cite growing tensions between economic and religious conservatives, as well as fallout from the war in Iraq, which a growing number of Republicans consider a mistake.
Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer who has spent years in the conservative trenches, said the GOP has veered badly off course, running up record deficits, pursuing a Wilsonian foreign policy -- "making the world safe for democracy" -- and becoming overly intrusive in people's private lives, whether intervening in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case or seeking to ban gambling on the Internet.
"The conservative movement was never about government virtue," said Shirley, who suggested Republicans may be destined for a time in the wilderness unless the party returns to its core principles of limited government and a more pragmatic foreign policy.
"Each of these guys is jostling each other, McCain, Giuliani and Romney, to be dead center of where Reagan was. No one is competing to run as the Nixon Republican, or the Rockefeller Republican," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, which asks every presidential candidate to sign a pledge vowing never to raise taxes. So far, Brownback and Romney have taken the pledge, the latter after declining to do so while Massachusetts governor.
"Strong national defense, individual freedom and responsibility, traditional moral values -- the ideas are still there," said Lee Edwards, a conservative scholar at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Still relevant. Still resonant."
But even Edwards conceded that many conservatives "are sort of holding back a little bit" before committing to any of the Republicans running. "We still have to wait and see what positions they do take," Edwards said.