WASHINGTON -- Perhaps the most far-reaching political question in the 2008 Republican presidential race is whether the conservative movement still exists. Conservatives have maintained a virtual lock on the party's nominating process since they seized control from the eastern liberal wing in 1964 and made Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater their leader.
That resulted in a succession of nominees who either led the movement or earned its support, from Richard Nixon (who turned out to be no conservative) to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, each of whom have had disputes with their party's base during their presidencies.
Now the conservative movement - which is showing its age, running out of ideas and losing energy -- is deeply divided about its direction, its issues and who should lead it into battle against the Democrats in 2008.
To some degree, the movement's many older organizations have lost touch with the party's grassroots whose makeup over the past four decades has gradually changed. To what extent, we do not fully know. But it may not be as conservative in its views on social issues as it once was.
How else to explain the rise of Rudy Giuliani as the front-runner and possible heir to Reagan's party?
The former New York mayor is tough on fiscal and spending issues, a committed tax-cutter and strong on national security and the war on terrorism, but he is not a social conservative. He hates abortion but is pro-choice. He is a law-and-order guy who pushed gun control in a once crime-ridden city that he cleaned up.
Yet he has consistently scored better among the entire Republican field, suggesting that some in the party's base, including many conservatives, are willing to give him a pass on some things as long as he meets their test on the bigger issues.
Or how does one explain the early push behind Fred Thompson, a little-known former Tennessee senator who has been out of politics for many years as he pursued an acting career in movies and television?
He had an undistinguished Senate career, with a profile that casts a moderate shadow on a number of issues. This is a man who backed the draconian, pro-incumbent campaign-finance law despised by the GOP's activist base. He worked alongside John McCain to get it passed when conservatives were condemning the bill as the worst attack on freedom of speech since the Alien and Sedition Act.
Then there is the third contender, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has had to undergo conversions on several issues from abortion to gun control. He's running as the heir to Reagan's mantle, but he opposed Reagan's presidential candidacy.
Still, Romney is tough on spending, maybe even better than Reagan, and promises to slay big government with an aggressive use of the veto. His sweeping tax-cut agenda is the best in the entire GOP field, earning praise from the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank.
Conservatives talk about taking the tax-cut agenda to the next level, and Romney's plan would do that: zero tax on savings, interest, dividends and capital gains for most taxpayers.
So here's what we know: Conservatives are divided among the top contenders with little likelihood between now and the early primaries of uniting around one candidate. Many activist leaders are still looking for Mr. Perfect in an imperfect political era.
The party is still searching for the best candidate who will not abandon core conservative beliefs. But many at the GOP's base may be willing to give that candidate the benefit of the doubt on some things in exchange for two other qualities: the leadership and executive skills to run the country and keep it safe, and the ability to defeat New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.
In 1960, Goldwater rallied his faithful forces with the admonition to "grow up conservatives," asking them to quit their petty bickering and internal squabbles and keep their eye on the core issues that sustained and united them.
I sense that this same undercurrent is simmering beneath the surface of the GOP's party faithful now as all of the top-tier candidates step up their calls for a restoration of conservative values that sparked the movement more than four decades ago.
I don't believe for a moment the conservative movement is dead. It has lost its way at times and taken a few wrong turns since Reagan made it a force to be reckoned with.
What it needs is a leader to give it a vigorous, clear and convincing voice in a volatile and confusing political climate. Obedience to the issues that gave the movement life are important, but that will count for little if conservatives are not led by someone who can breath new life into the cause and rally a majority of Americans behind its agenda.
That reality will be uppermost in the minds of conservatives when they troop to the polls in January to begin choosing their party's nominee.