J Pat Carter, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — This is not John McCain's Republican Party.
Three years and one tea party revolution after the self-described maverick won the GOP presidential nomination— but lost the White House — conservatives now rule. This week's gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference, opening Thursday, will underscore the growing clout of the political right.
All but a handful of the potential presidential candidates will speak. Political insiders will closely scrutinize a presidential straw poll of convention-goers.
Less than a year before the first primaries, the jockeying to find a nominee to challenge President Barack Obama is still a crowded, unsettled affair. But one thing's clear: This GOP race will be more conservative, top to bottom, than it has been for years.
The Republican Party has been moving to the right for decades, boosted by massive defections from former Democrats in the South. Now the potent tea party is accelerating the trend, and it's ready for its first role in a presidential race.
Emboldened by big wins in last fall's midterm elections, Republicans see no reason to start the 2012 cycle by softening their calls for lower taxes, fewer regulations, a repeal of last year's health care law and fervent opposition to Obama's agenda. Their unanimity, however, poses a challenge to the numerous Republicans weighing presidential bids: How can they distinguish themselves from one another in a crowded chorus if they're all singing from the same hymnal?
"They're all going to run as conservatives," said Craig Shirley, a longtime adviser to conservative causes.
David Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United, happily agrees. "This is unlike previous years when you had moderates hiding as conservatives to win the nomination," he said, singling out McCain, Bob Dole in 1996 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 and 1992.
This time, Bossie said, "they're all virtually identical on the big global issues that conservatives care about. They're all pro-life. They're all for smaller government. They are all for lower taxes. They're all for a strong national security. They're all pro-military."
And there are a lot of them. The lack of a clear front-runner is encouraging more Republicans to test the presidential waters.
The congested field makes it hard for donors and activists to pick early favorites, and easy to stay uncommitted. That further muddies the waters.
At this stage in the 2008 election, polls of Republicans ranked former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani as the early favorite. He was followed by McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
All three had strong links to centrist, moderate politics, even if they played them down during the primary season. McCain had been a Republican "maverick" who backed campaign finance limits and legalization for some illegal immigrants. Giuliani backed abortion rights.
Romney struggled to distance himself from earlier embraces of abortion rights, gay rights and embryonic stem-cell research. Widely expected to run again in 2012, Romney must renew his efforts to explain to voters why he changed his views on issues vital to many conservatives.
But in a sign of the tea party's influence, his biggest challenge may involve a topic that generated only modest debate in the 2008 primary. As governor, Romney overhauled Massachusetts' health care system, requiring residents to obtain insurance or pay fees. Obama cited the law as a partial model for his own plan, and GOP opponents are pounding Romney on the issue. His efforts to placate them will say a lot about how staunchly conservative the party's nominating process has become.
The potential candidate who draws more attention than Romney is Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and McCain's 2008 running mate. Her decision to skip this week's conservative conference in Washington suggests the Republican contest may remain murky for months.
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