March 2, 2007 -- The fight for the right began in earnest Friday as Republican presidential candidates attacked one another before a convention of conservative activists who seemed unsure and unenthusiastic about their three leading contenders.
It all could be summed up by the sticker sported by one businessman in the exhibition hall of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which drew thousands of activists from across the country. "Rudy McRomney," the sticker said, with a red slash crossing out an amalgam of the three GOP presidential front-runners: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Direct mail consultant Michael Centanni's sticker summed up the views held by many at the CPAC.
"The three front-runners are just not viable conservative choices," Centanni said. "I think what we know about the three front-runners is enough really to doom them."
This discontent is not news to their campaigns. Giuliani -- a supporter of gay and abortion rights, as well as gun control -- tried to address this divide head-on when he spoke at the conference Friday afternoon.
"Ronald Reagan used to say, 'My 80 percent ally is not my 20 percent enemy,'" Giuliani said, invoking a conservative icon whom he uncharacteristically mentioned today more than he did 9/11. "You and I have a lot of common beliefs that are the same and we have some that are different. You just described your relationship, I think, with your husband, your wife, your children. We don't all agree on everything. I don't agree with myself on everything."
But the incongruity of Giuliani's positions was only underlined by the speaker who preceded him on the dais, Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. LaPierre lashed out at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's support of gun control, but he might as well have been attacking Giuliani, who holds many of the same positions as his mayoral successor.
"He wants to impose New York City gun bans on you," LaPierre cried.
According to the most recent ABC News poll, Giuliani leads among Republican voters nationwide with 44 percent of the vote, McCain with 21 percent, and Romney with 4 percent. (Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- who has not indicated any serious desire to run for president -- has 14 percent.) But with each of these three men having their issues with conservatives, there is a suspicion that this race remains wide open.
Thus -- attacks. David Bossie, president of the conservative research organization Citizens United, for instance, circulated a dossier entitled: "He's No Ronald Reagan: Why Conservatives Should Not Vote for John McCain." Another attendee was dressed head-to-toe as a dolphin, sporting a T-shirt that said "Flip Romney."
And of course candidates were getting into the fun as well. Leading up to the conference, the Christian Broadcasting Network released Web video of an interview with Romney. Despite his relatively new conservative positions on gay rights and abortion, the charismatic former governor aggressively went after Giuliani.
"He is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage and anti-gun," Romney charged, even though Giuliani has never voiced support for same-sex marriage. "That's a tough combination in a Republican primary."
Addressing the conference Friday afternoon, Romney reserved his ammunition for McCain -- the only credible GOP presidential hopeful not to come -- attacking McCain on the immigration reform bill he wrote with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
"McCain/Kennedy isn't the answer," Romney said. "McCain/Kennedy gives benefits to illegals that would cost taxpayers millions. And more importantly, amnesty didn't work 20 years ago, and it won't work today."
Romney also pledged to overturn McCain's signature campaign finance reform measure, written with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
"If I'm elected president, I will fight to repeal McCain/Feingold!" he said to applause.
Of course the less popular but inarguably more reliably conservative candidates sense an opportunity.
"I absolutely think there's an opening," Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, told ABC News. "And I'm seeing that in Iowa as I've gotten to be known. I've been moving up in the polls."
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee today assailed Giuliani's declaration that he hates abortion but wants to keep it legal. Such a position, Huckabee said, "would be like a Hindu friend of mine saying that 'I really don't care for the slaughter of beef, but I'm going to buy a steakhouse.' Something is just irreconcilable in that very concept."
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., warned those in attendance that they "shouldn't be surprised at the host of conservative converts" but reminded the audience that "conversion happens on the road to Damascus, not the road to Des Moines."
And former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who addresses the gathering Saturday, released a Web video in which he attacked Rudy McRomney.
"The three leading challengers for our party's nomination may be good men," Gilmore says. "But they simply do not share our conservative values. John McCain has fought conservatives time after time, even invoking the rhetoric of class warfare to oppose Bush tax cuts. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney both repeatedly opposed core conservative values to win elections in New York and Massachusetts."
Invoking former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's cry to Democrats in 2003, Gilmore said he "will represent the Republican wing of the Republican Party."
"So far, social conservatives have not found a Mr. Right or maybe it's a Mrs. Right," says Focus on the Family's Tom Minnery. "A lot of people are praying about this."
Avery Miller, Toni L. Wilson and the ABC News Political Unit contributed to this report.