Robert Novak

Then the pushers projected Gilmore as a tax-cutting, jobs-creating governor of Virginia, head of a congressionally appointed commission of terrorism, chairman of the Republican National Committee and National Rifle Association member opposing gun control. With that buildup, Gilmore finished first, well ahead of the field.

That suggests at least the theoretical success of a campaign to knock down the conservative credentials of the big three candidates and build up Gilmore's. "I have the best track record of any of the candidates," Gilmore told me, adding that McCain and Giuliani are "not conservative" while Romney was a "liberal governor of Massachusetts."

With Gilmore a latecomer to the presidential fund-raising game, it is doubtful he could find sufficient funds to tear down his opponents and build up himself nationally or even in the state of Iowa. But he will have plenty of help.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) attracting right-wingers nationwide to Washington this weekend, Citizens United will distribute a 23-page attack on McCain. "He's no Ronald Reagan," it begins, and concludes: "John McCain is not a conservative." (McCain is the only announced Republican presidential hopeful not scheduled to speak at CPAC.) Simultaneously, McCain operatives are putting out material that depicts Giuliani riding into City Hall on the shoulders of the New York Liberal Party as a throwback to the old Tammany Hall Democratic machine.

It is hardly too late for such negative campaigning to tear down Republican front-runners because of inadequate conservative credentials. At this point in the 2000 election cycle, Bush was far in front with 45 percent in the polls, with Elizabeth Dole second at 29 percent, and McCain at a mere 3 percent, behind Dan Quayle and Steve Forbes, before making his run that nearly won the nomination. The GOP lineup for 2008 may still be open, considering the conservative void.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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