Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Twelve months before Republicans begin choosing their 2008 presidential candidate, conservatives remain deeply divided over who they want to be the GOP's nominee.

This is because no undisputed champion of the conservative cause has emerged, at least among the frontrunners, all of whom carry political baggage that has fed doubts about whether they should be the heir apparent to the party of Ronald Reagan.

For the first time in years, the GOP's dominant right wing is without a major popular national leader to carry its banner, forcing them to choose among candidates who have deviated from conservative orthodoxy in the past but who are now appealing for their support.

Last year, the clear conservative choice was Sen. George Allen of Virginia, but a series of gaffes and campaign blunders led to his defeat in November and the end of his presidential ambitions.

That has left the field pretty much to the party's three frontrunners: Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Each of them has strengths, but they have been critical of their party's conservative agenda in the past, especially on social and economic issues.

McCain has carved out a conservative voting record in the Senate as a defense hawk and as one of the fiercest opponents of wasteful pork-barrel spending. But he has led liberal causes, too, pushing draconian campaign-finance laws, opposing President Bush's tax cuts, attacking religious and social conservative leaders.

Chastened by his loss to Bush for the 2000 presidential nomination, he has flip-flopped on a number of issues: voting to extend capital gains and dividend tax cuts that he once condemned as tax cuts for the rich, and making peace with religious leaders on the right whom he had called "agents of intolerance."

Still, many conservatives consider him untrustworthy -- especially social and religious conservatives who question his belief in right-to-life issues and economic conservatives who doubt his newfound support of Bush's tax cuts. Giuliani, the crime-fighting, street-smart mayor who made New York City livable again and led it out of the ruins of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has become a national hero of near-legendary proportions.

He has not only demonstrated remarkable executive skills that are in short supply in government, he has parlayed his fame into becoming one of the most popular political figures in the country -- campaigning heavily for his party in 2004 and 2006. He leads McCain in many, if not most, of the presidential-preference polls.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.