By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2007; A08
Sen. Sam Brownback, the son of a rural Kansas farmer who has become a leader among religious conservatives in Congress, formally launched his 2008 bid for president at a rally in Topeka yesterday.
Brownback, 50, became one of the first Republicans to announce the formation of an exploratory committee six weeks ago, and yesterday said he had decided "to take the first steps on the yellow brick road to the White House."
The Kansas Republican acknowledged being little known beyond his home state. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday shows he is supported by 1 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. He was also unlucky to announce his candidacy on the same day as a better-known Democratic contender, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
But he may be the best-known among those who hope to be the choice of social conservatives and wield that power to break into a group of more visible GOP candidates.
"My positions are where the heart of the Republican Party is," he told reporters after his speech.
Brownback's supporters say the party's better-known contenders -- Arizona Sen. John McCain, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney -- offer weaker platforms for voters who strongly oppose abortion, same-sex marriage and stem cell research.
"There are really two primaries taking place simultaneously in the Republican party," said Gary Bauer, the family values activist who ran for president in 2000. "One, for center-left candidates, is being fought out between Giuliani and Senator McCain. On the conservative side, nobody has captured that crown yet, but Senator Brownback will be a major competitor."
Brownback was raised on a farm in tiny Parker, Kan., served as the state's youngest-ever secretary of agriculture and came to Congress in 1994. Two years later, he won the Senate seat that had been vacated by Robert J. Dole in advance of his run for president.
While in Congress, Brownback, a Methodist most of his life, converted to Catholicism and forged an alliance with conservative Christian leaders on the Hill. He began leading meetings of the Values Action Team, where advocacy groups meet to track socially conservative legislation, and speaking out sternly about a cultural decline.
"Senator Brownback is unrivaled as an advocate for the family and for life in Washington," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "What Sam has that is unique, is that he has a pro-life, pro-family record to go with his pro-life, pro-family message."
Brownback captured many of those themes yesterday as he addressed a raucous crowd of supporters in Topeka, Kan., telling them: "I am a conservative and I'm proud to be a conservative."
In his 17-minute speech, he touched on the sanctity of marriage, the protection of all life "whether elderly or in the womb," and the need to preserve religion's place in public institutions. But he also addressed other subjects, vowing for instance to "end deaths by cancer in 10 years," and to take the tax code "behind the barn" and kill it "with a dull ax."
After the speech, Brownback conceded that he "starts out with less name ID" than other candidates. According to the Post-ABC News poll, Giuliani is favored by 34 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, McCain by 27 percent and Romney by 9 percent, with former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who is also considering a run for the White House, at 9 percent as well.
Giuliani, McCain and Romney also have hired teams of advisers seasoned in President Bush's two campaigns and signaled that they hope to raise $100 million by the time primary season begins early next year.
Brownback's Senate campaign account has $600,000 as he starts his fundraising drive. A key to his campaign's financial strength may rest with Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza and a Roman Catholic philanthropist who started Legatus, a lay group of wealthy conservative business executives. Monaghan has been serving as a top adviser to Brownback's campaign.
The senator's chances may ultimately depend on his ability to ignite Christian conservatives, said John Green, senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Religious activists "don't have a consensus candidate yet," he said, but Brownback is one "they're certainly paying a lot of attention to."