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GOP presidential hopefuls court restless conservatives

WASHINGTON --Republican Mike Huckabee cast himself Friday as a lifelong conservative the GOP can count on as he fought for the support of restless right-wing activists still searching for a presidential candidate.

"We can't afford to elect people who simply reflect a culture and reflect a common view, but don't necessarily believe it," the former Arkansas governor said, indirectly referring to the three leading GOP candidates -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and ex-Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

They are considered the most serious contenders for the Republican nomination. But conservatives are questioning their credentials and aren't sold on any of them. Thus, several other lesser-known candidates like Huckabee are hoping to emerge as strong challengers by capturing the backing of that critical part of the GOP base.

Huckabee was one of several White House hopefuls in the crowded field to address thousands of activists attending the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

"Maybe this weekend it might be renamed the conservative presidential anxiety conference," Huckabee said, reflecting the mood of the annual convention, to ripples of chuckles. "The theme might be 'Dude, where's my candidate?' "

"I'd like to think that maybe he's standing in front of you," Huckabee said.

In a well-received speech, Huckabee emphasized his conservative positions on abortion, gay marriage and guns, while seeking to reassure the activists that he's a fiscal conservative despite raising taxes as governor.

Giuliani and Romney -- two of the three top candidates -- were speaking later Friday, as was Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a darling of the religious right. Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Duncan Hunter also were appearing, as was former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.

Only McCain, an Arizona senator and failed 2000 GOP candidate, skipped the event to campaign and fundraise elsewhere instead.

The slight was sure to further irritate conservatives who already are skeptical that they can trust him because of his reputation of bucking the party. Even though he has a conservative social and fiscal voting record, McCain has angered conservatives with his work on campaign finance reform, immigration and other legislation they hate.

Aside from McCain, conservatives also question Romney's sincerity in opposing abortion and gay marriage. He has a record of equivocation on some major issues and outright switching on others. And, Giuliani is on the wrong side of many of the same social issues that conservatives hold dear, including abortion, gun control and gay rights.

The series of speeches in Washington came a day after Romney assailed McCain and Giuliani -- an indication of the GOP contest was taking on a sharper tone a full ten months before the first primary votes are cast.

Romney told New Hampshire voters on Thursday that McCain was devising an immigration policy that was the "wrong course" for the nation. And Giuliani's positions on abortion, gay marriage and gun control were a losing combination in the GOP primary, he told a television program aimed at Christian conservatives viewers.

In Utah for a fundraiser, McCain responded to Romney's criticisms by saying he believes that a comprehensive approach to immigration is needed. "So does the president of the United States. None of us support amnesty, and we need to secure our borders," the senator said.

Giuliani spokeswoman Katie Levinson replied: "Mayor Giuliani has the utmost respect for Gov. Romney. The mayor's position on gay marriage has been both clear and consistent -- he does not support gay marriage and believes marriage should be between a man a woman."