Reporting from Washington — Although "tea party" activists and other conservatives claim kinship with the founding fathers and the Spirit of '76, their emerging strategy for the November elections has more in common with the Spirit of '94 -- the year Republicans ended 40 years of Democratic dominance on Capitol Hill.
Conservative strategists centered the 1994 Republican campaign on a "Contract with America." This year, GOP leaders in the House have pledged to issue their own, updated version of that agenda, which is widely credited with having helped Republicans focus their message and win a historic victory.
But this time, the declaration of principles that House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio has promised will have to play in a crowded field.
A version of the tea party-backed "Contract From America" was unveiled last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual showcase of leaders and activists on the right. The unveiling came a day after another group -- including many of the elders of conservatism -- announced their own manifesto, dubbed the Mount Vernon statement after its signing at a library near George Washington's estate.
Newt Gingrich, chief architect of the 1994 Contract with America, also has weighed in, publishing his version of a new contract in this month's Newsmax magazine.
The plethora of manifestoes reflects a heightened energy among Republicans, and also shows the work the GOP has to do in uniting the party.
Reflecting that lack of unity, former Republican House leader Dick Armey, now a leading voice of the limited-government, anti-tax tea party movement, said the tea party contract wouldn't be necessary "if Republicans had the credibility to do it themselves. They don't."
Armey's Washington-based advocacy group, FreedomWorks, has endorsed the "Contract From America," which bills itself as culled from the collective wisdom of Internet activists. Its organizer, Houston attorney Ryan Hecker, has been soliciting policy ideas through a website for months and has selected 22 that will be narrowed to 10 through an online vote.
Many of the original suggestions on Hecker's site, contractfromamerica.com, might be difficult for mainstream Republicans and moderate voters to swallow: abolishing the Department of Education, dismantling the IRS and establishing an official U.S. language.
The shortened version distributed last week was edited with an eye toward making the goals more palatable. On education, the new contract proposes to "give parents more choices in the education of their children." On reforming Washington, the ideas include making bills public seven days before a vote and "demanding a balanced budget." The often-divisive issue of immigration didn't make the list.
Focusing on positions that would attract broad popular support was central to the original Contract with America's success, Gingrich wrote this month, and the same must be true of any current effort to spell out what conservatives stand for.
"It has to be popular with 70% or more of the American people," he said.
"We were very careful . . . in 1994 to avoid issues that would split us or allow the news media to attack us as radicals."
Conservatives behind the Mount Vernon statement were also keen on this approach. The statement, which organizers linked to the so-called Sharon Statement signed at the home of William F. Buckley Jr. in 1960, was a reassertion of constitutional conservatism broadly and grandly defined.
Conservatism applies "the principle of limited government based on the rule of law to every proposal" and informing "conservatism's firm defense of family, neighborhood, community and faith," the statement reads.
It was signed, under the watchful eye of a George Washington impersonator, by several prominent and well-connected Washington insiders led by former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese and Heritage Foundation President Edwin Feulner Jr.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), who is overseeing the House Republicans' project, said he wasn't certain that their new contract -- which he prefers to call a "commitment" -- would point to specific legislation, a sign it may be taking the broader approach of the Mount Vernon statement. Taking a cue from the tea partiers, McCarthy said, the document would be written with input from websites, town halls, perhaps even an iPhone application.
"It's not going to be written in Washington. It's not a Republican platform," he said.
"This is part of a road map back to showing how we are going to find solutions. This isn't about Republicans getting the majority, it's about saving America."