By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Rep. Duncan Hunter walked into the Family Research Council's "Blog for Life" event yesterday at the start of the annual antiabortion march on the Mall. Invited to the lectern, the California Republican gave a speech about why he should be president of the United States.
"Who's that?" whispered George Isajiw of the Catholic Medical Association.
The candidate, who held his raincoat for the duration of his three-minute address, made a little pro-life joke involving judges, sonograms and optometrists. He earned polite chuckles. He offered to take questions but, surveying the sparse and quiet crowd, reconsidered and departed.
An hour later, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, also a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, entered the same room to noisy applause, a standing-room-only crowd and camera flashes. He fielded enthusiastic questions, then left after half an hour to a standing ovation.
On paper, there is little to separate Brownback from Hunter. Both have solid antiabortion credentials. And both are solidly in the dark-horse category. The weekend's Washington Post-ABC News poll found Brownback's support at 1 percent among Republican primary voters, while Hunter merited an asterisk; with the poll's five-percentage-point margin of error, support for both men could be, theoretically, less than zero.
But Brownback has the power to alter the GOP presidential nomination, while Hunter is little more than a vanity candidate. The difference is in the reaction the two draw from Christian conservatives, who regard Brownback as a cult hero and Hunter, former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, as a relative unknown.
Brownback thinks he can ride that support to victory in the Iowa caucuses, where Christian conservatives have long dominated. "Over 40 percent will not vote for anybody who is not pro-life -- period," he told the antiabortion bloggers. "You know, if I can do 40 percent in this field, I'd probably win."
That's not as zany as it sounds. Brownback may be 33 points behind Rudy Giuliani and 26 points behind John McCain. But not one of the potential hopefuls who outpoll him can match his social conservative bona fides: not Giuliani or George Pataki (pro-choice), not Mitt Romney (previously pro-gay rights), not John McCain (pro-stem cell research) and not Newt Gingrich (pro-divorce).
For a presidential candidate trying to appeal to the broad American electorate, parts of the Blog for Life event would have been awkward. A speaker before Brownback displayed an article titled "Abortionist Accused of Eating Fetuses." Another participant distributed cards saying "Birth Control Is Harmful."
That may have accounted for Hunter's discomfort. He was scheduled to speak at 11 but entered at 9:35 and was quickly invited to the microphone. He clutched his raincoat at the lectern, as though indicating he did not intend to stay. One of the hosts finally relieved Hunter of the garment, but the candidate promptly announced his departure. "Thanks for letting me come down," he said.
Brownback, however, was in his element. He announced his introduction of the "Unborn Pain Awareness Act" and vowed to protect all "children of a living God." Asking why disabled Americans are protected but not fetuses with abnormalities, he demanded: "What's the difference -- location?" For emphasis, he introduced a 4-year-old girl with Down syndrome. He urged the listeners to speak to abortion-rights supporters with "truth encased in love."
" Roe v. Wade is going to be overturned," he told the cheering crowd. Brownback predicted that would happen "a few years from now," and abortion will be illegal unless a mother's life is at risk, he said.
Isajiw of the Catholic Medical Association rose to argue that even an exception to protect a mother's life is unnecessary. "That's a good point," Brownback responded. "Well said."
After a similar speech at the March for Life on the Mall, Brownback joined the march to the Supreme Court, then welcomed participants at a Brownback for President reception at the Capitol Hill Club. The Rev. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life gave the opening prayer: "We pray today particularly for a man whom we love and whom we admire, whom we look to and have looked to for leadership and have not been disappointed. We pray today for Senator Brownback and his family."
Two hundred march participants chanted: "Brownback! Brownback!"
The candidate got to the point quickly. "The base of our party believes in issues," he said, "and I am the closest person in the candidacy to where the base of the party is on these issues."
Not even Duncan Hunter? Brownback declined to take the bait. "Duncan's a good man," he said.
And, for now, a lonely one. As march participants filed in to join Brownback at the Capitol Hill Club reception, Hunter, in his black raincoat, was spotted walking south on First Street SE, alone.