Out on a Limb: His 'bleeding heart'
Sam Brownback (R)
Senator, KS
Born: 09/12/1956
Birthplace: Parker, KS
Home: Topeka, KS
Religion: Catholic
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You have to give Sam Brownback credit for expanding the definition of a right-wing Christian conservative. "I'm a bleeding heart conservative," Brownback, the senior senator from Kansas and a Republican presidential hopeful, told me.

What this means in theory, he said during a recent campaign stop to New Hampshire, is that's he adamantly against abortion, adamantly pro-gun, adamantly pro-states' rights, adamantly anti-gay marriage and civil unions, adamantly pro-family values, adamantly pro-flat tax and more freedom, and adamantly pro-"whole life."

Sam Brownback is nothing if not adamant in his beliefs, which are refreshingly far removed from typical political, poll-tested drivel.

What this means is that he has "a big heart for the downtrodden" and everyone from the womb to the tomb. What this means in practice is that he has traveled to Africa to meet and comfort the downtrodden in Africa and especially in Darfur. For all the considerable liberal furor about this decimated region in the Sudan, it has been Brownback as much as anyone who has raised consciousness about the genocide in Darfur.

"We can grow our souls in the process," said Brownback, an evangelical who converted to Catholicism and worships at the Topeka Bible Church, about the quest to form a massive public and private network to eradicate global poverty and despair.

What this also means in practice is that Brownback, who had a deeper religious transformation when he was diagnosed with skin cancer in 1995, is the only credible presidential hopeful I've ever known who announced his intentions to run and then a few days later voluntarily spent a night in the hell hole known as the Louisiana State Prison at Angola.

"You get to put a real face to the big problem of crime, on recidivism and why the system is failing," Brownback told me about his "faith-community partnership" hopes for a "hard-nosed" approach to derailing the cycle. "We just can't build more prisons."

Talk awhile to Sam Brownback, who was a wunderkind of Kansas politics (he was youngest agriculture commissioner in state history), and he talks a lot about systems. When I ask him how his party, nominally known for fiscal restraint, has created the largest deficits ever while they controlled all the levers of power, he criticizes a "system built to spend," seemingly impervious to human control.

Brownback has a wrecking ball solution for the system. Create a bipartisan commission not unlike the base-closure system and dissect the merit of each federal department and then have Congress make an up-or-down vote to abolish or retain the agency. He calls it a "deal or no deal" innovation that has zero chance of going anywhere because it lacks a certain connection to reality. He has been less critical of some of his system-built campaign contributors such as the fabulously corrupt Jack Abramoff or Koch Industries, which has donated more than $100,000 over the years to Brownback and is considered one of the worst and most flagrant polluters in the country. It's not surprising that Brownback wanted nothing to do with campaign finance reform or rates as one of the most environmentally unfriendly legislators in Washington.

But Brownback is, if nothing else, an idealist. When he was elected to Congress in 1994, he didn't want anything to do with the dog-and-pony show known as the Contract with America. He's walked his own path and butted heads with fellow conservatives and the Bush administration. His political hero remains Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who made a career out of being nasty and vindictive and who got his way more often than not "" especially when it came to directing federal pork projects to his state as collateral.

His campaign Web site is geared toward hard-core conservatives who don't like abortion, gays, judges, taxes and anyone who would mess with their gun rights. It doesn't talk in the language of actual policy as it does of parables of good deeds and thoughts. There's no mention at all of a health-care plan or of climate change, though he does advocate being a good steward of the Earth. On Iraq, he seems totally oblivious to deep anti-war sentiment in New Hampshire and the rest of the country.

This is a recent submission he made to that site: "After my recent trip to Iraq, I am even more convinced that the situation there is precarious, but hopeful. I see hope in the Iraqi people. I believe this hope will be the foundation of a new Iraqi society. Much remains to be done, and I think we need a plan to turn this country over to its citizens. I will continue to work with the leaders in our country, as well as leaders in Iraq, to find a solution that protects the future of Iraq and the pride and dignity of its citizens."

Except for the reference to "precarious," the words could have come directly from any number of Bush administration happy-faces and quite delusional press releases about the Iraq disaster. If you engage Brownback, you can sense that "being hopeful" about Iraq isn't the same as being real.

"I am not for deadlines, but we have a political solution because we cannot impose a military solution," he told me.

He's pushing for a three-state miracle cure that the Bush administration opposes and he's really pushing for the Iraqis to get their act together. He's unleashed his own share of "cut-and-run" diatribes against the Democrats, but when I press him further if that's really true, he admits "some are and some are not. They are not speaking with a unified voice."

Brownback faces a number of obstacles and they aren't necessarily because he's not well known. He's optimistic about breaking through to the top tier, "because I'm gonna sell myself to every New Hampshire voter and have a good heart-to-heart talk."

"He doesn't have the same world view of most New Hampshire Republicans," said Dean Spiliotes of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. "It's very different here than the strong evangelical and social conservative environment you find in the South or in parts of the Midwest. It's a stark contrast."

Though he's barely rating a pulse in early-season polls, Spiliotes believes Brownback can distinguish himself from the other conservatives, but it may not be enough in a state that thoroughly rejected the television preacher Pat Robertson in the 1988 primary. The strong but shrinking conservative ethic in this state has been complex with a vibrant libertarian component hard to transplant elsewhere.

Brownback is undaunted. Though born-again Christian President George W. Bush has proven tragically that strong faith does not necessarily translate into sound judgment, Brownback believes he can bring about the country's salvation.

"People want to have a good government, one that represents greatness."

Michael McCord is the opinion page editor of Herald Sunday and the Portsmouth Herald.