It wasn't so long ago that conservatives believed that George Bush's presidency would usher in a political realignment that would last for decades. But as the right looks forward to the next election, something close to panic is setting in. Surveying the leading G.O.P. contenders for 2008, direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie pronounces "not a one of them is worthy of support from conservatives." Says Craig Shirley, a public relations executive who represents many conservative groups and who has written a book on the Reagan revolution: "There's anger, there's angst, there's dismay in the conservative movement." Some activists, Shirley adds, have even begun talking quietly among themselves about forming a third party.
All that worry might seem premature, given that the Iowa caucuses are still a year away. But the race for the Republican nomination is already taking a shape that alarms many conservatives, especially the Evangelicals who were so crucial to Bush's re-election in 2004. None of the top three potential Republican candidates considering a bid to succeed Bush has a record that makes the right entirely comfortable. Senator John McCain originally opposed Bush's tax cuts, supports looser immigration policies, voted against a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and was an architect of the deal under which Senate Democrats retained their right to filibuster Bush's judicial nominees. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is in favor of gun control, abortion rights and same-sex civil unions. And outgoing Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney espoused liberal views on gay rights and abortion when he was running for office in Massachusetts, though he has disavowed them as he has moved into national politics. Many conservatives had high hopes for Virginia's George Allen and Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum--until they lost their Senate re-election races last year. And Evangelicals say they adore all-but-announced contender Sam Brownback, a former Evangelical who converted to Catholicism and is one of the Senate's most ardent opponents of embryonic-stem-cell research and gay marriage. But they are skeptical that the Kansas Senator can broaden his appeal enough beyond religious voters to have a chance of winning.
Considering that social conservatives account for a third or more of Republican voters, they could change the dynamic of the race, if they were to rally behind a single candidate. But they may not have much time to orchestrate that move. Republicans have a tradition of anointing their candidates early, and the 2008 campaign calendar suggests that they may do it even faster this time. As many as 20 states will have held their primaries by mid-February 2008--a time when, in earlier years, the candidates and their campaign organizations would still be dusting the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire from their boots. The practical effect of accelerating the schedule is that none of the contenders will be able to put all their hopes on getting a bounce from one or two early victories. Any serious candidate will have to be raising tens of millions of dollars and running a full-fledged national campaign operation by the third or fourth quarter of this year.