GOP presidential hopefuls court restless conservatives

WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential contender Rudy Giuliani acknowledged on Friday that conservatives donít always agree with him on gun control, abortion and gay rights, and urged them to look past the differences.

"You and I have a lot of common beliefs that are the same and we have some that are different," said the former New York City mayor, a moderate on several social issues. "The point of a presidential election is to figure out who you agree with the most."

Lesser-known White House hopefuls cast themselves as more appealing choices for restless right-wing activists still searching for a candidate because of unease over Giuliani and the other two strong GOP contenders - Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

"We canít afford to elect people who simply reflect a culture and reflect a common view, but donít necessarily believe it," Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, said, indirectly referring to the three.

Nearly every Republican seeking the GOPís presidential nomination addressed thousands of activists attending the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

Romney was 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. Of the top contenders only McCain, a failed 2000 GOP candidate, skipped the event.

The series of speeches came a day after Romney assailed McCain and Giuliani - an indication the GOP contest was taking on a sharper tone a full 10 months before the first primary votes are cast.

Giulianiís lead over McCain in national popularity polls has widened in recent weeks, and he took the stage to raucous cheers before a star-struck crowd. The audience, packed into the ballroom, erupted in applause and cat calls several times throughout his 30-minute-plus long speech.

In it, he sought to prove that his performance as mayor - on issues such as welfare and taxes, and his leadership qualities - override any concerns voters may have about him.

At one point, Giuliani told activists gathered in a hotel ballroom that when he became mayor he thought he could reform the cityís school system - a remark that prompted the crowd to laugh.

"Okay, I made mistakes. Iím going to admit them and apologize for them," Giuliani said with a wry smile and a pause as the crowd howled.

It was an apparent reference to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the Democratic presidential front-runner who has been criticized for failing to call her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war a mistake.

Conservatives have questioning the credentials of Giuliani, McCain and Romney and arenít sold on any. Thus, several other little-known candidates like Huckabee are hoping to emerge as strong challengers by capturing the backing of that critical part of the GOP base.

"Maybe this weekend it might be renamed the conservative presidential anxiety conference," Huckabee said, reflecting the mood of the convention, to ripples of chuckles. "The theme might be íDude, whereís my candidate?í "

"Iíd like to think that maybe heís standing in front of you," Huckabee said before emphasizing his conservative positions on social issues, while seeking to reassure the activists that heís a fiscal conservative despite raising taxes as governor.

McCainís absence 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 Romneyís 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.