Sam Brownback seeks winning niche as bleeding-heart right winger

Published February 25, 2007

Over the coming weeks, we will try to make the case for how each of the 2008 presidential contenders could win the White House. These aren't predictions or endorsements, mind you, just food for thought.

Last week was Hillary Clinton. This week, Republican Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback.


Sam Brownback may be the most interesting and foolishly overlooked candidate in the crowded presidential field.

How many politicians can be a hero to antiabortion activists, and also work well with liberals like Ted Kennedy and the late Paul Wellstone to accomplish his compassionate conservative agenda?

Unlike the front-runners, the second-term Kansas senator opposes President Bush's troop "surge" in Iraq. He is campaigning first and foremost as a social conservative, but he also has impeccable credentials as a tax-cutting economic conservative.

Sure, the polls suggest the 50-year-old attorney and onetime radio broadcaster is not competing in the same ballpark as Arizona Sen. John McCain or "America's Mayor" Rudy Giuliani. He has nowhere near the establishment and fundraising support of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

But if Brownback can seize the opportunity, there's a wide open hole for him to run through.

"If any one of those top three Republicans hits a bump, the zone opens up and Brownback could move up to the top tier," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Brownback has the highest lifetime rating from Americans for Tax Reform of all the presidential contenders. He and Romney are the only ones who have signed ATR's pledge never to raise taxes, though as governor Romney declined to sign it.

"What Brownback has is complete credibility on the social conservative issues and complete credibility on the economic issues," said Norquist, who is neutral in the primary.

Conservative primary and caucus voters have plenty of reasons to look for alternatives to Giuliani, McCain and Romney:

- Many ardent Republicans can't stand McCain, who opposed Bush's tax cuts, led the fight for campaign finance reform loathed by many conservatives and in 2000 aggressively attacked prominent Christian conservatives as "agents of intolerance." Further deterioration in Iraq could also drag down McCain because he's been such a supporter of sending more troops there.

- Romney may be casting himself the strongest social conservative among the leading Republicans, but he didn't embrace that image until he started to look at a presidential run. He used to tout his support of abortion rights and gay rights and tried to reassure Massachusetts voters that his positions were "not going to make me the hero of the NRA." He also faces skepticism about his Mormon faith by some evangelical voters, and in the midst of a war on terror has a thin resume on foreign affairs.

- Former New York Mayor Giuliani is leading the field in many national polls, but he has yet to jump fully into the race and endure the scrutiny likely to chip away his 9/11 sheen. Despite his proven leadership skills, it's tough to imagine a Republican nominee with a long record of supporting abortion, gay civil unions and gun control. Not to mention that he's been married three times and had a high-profile affair with his current wife while married to his previous one.

If Brownback could defy the early conventional wisdom and win the Republican nomination, of course, he would shift to the more moderate general election electorate. Victory would still be in sight.

Assume Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination. Then assume that while Republicans mobilize to beat the demonized former first lady, a good share of moderate voters would see her as too polarizing or couldn't stomach more of the Bush/Clinton dynastic battles.

History suggests a hard-right Christian conservative can't win a majority of the electorate. But Brownback is not Pat Robertson, or even Gary Bauer. He's a leading Christian conservative who's admired by many liberals.

Brownback has worked with Barack Obama to call attention to Darfur and stop the genocide there. He and Ted Kennedy worked together to fight Down's Syndrome and human rights abuses in North Korea, and he has called the anti-human trafficking act he and Paul Wellstone sponsored his most significant legislative achievement.

Brownback, a Catholic, can rail against Roe vs. Wade and gay marriage with the best of them. But he also talks about prison reform, fighting AIDS and malaria in Africa, and about compassionate immigration policies. He led the effort to create an African-American memorial on the Washington Mall. He adopted two of his five children from China and Guatemala.

That's a sincere humanitarian streak that could well endear the Kansas senator to crossover voters looking for a palatable alternative to Hillary Clinton.

"I don't think you can pigeonhole Sam Brownback and say that he's just a conservative because he's a lot more than that," said Brownback campaign manager Rob Wasinger. "One of Sen. Brownback's greatest strengths is reaching out and challenging people to go beyond themselves. People want someone who can get results, and Sam Brownback has proven he can. He has a broad agenda that is inclusive of a lot of different people and interests."

Sam Brownback has a story and a record to excite people - if he can convince activists and donors in his own party that he's viable. That's a tough job against household names like McCain and Giuliani.

But hey, if Americans can elect a former B-movie actor president, why not a bleeding heart right winger?

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.