MEMPHIS, Tenn, Mar 12 (Reuters) Republican contenders for the White House walked a political tightrope at a weekend gathering of party activists -- expressing solidarity with President George W Bush while stressing differences over issues such as deficits and big government.
While praising Bush's leadership, they condemned runaway government spending, rising debt and expanding bureaucracies -- which have grown under Bush and added to a flood of political difficulties that have sent his approval ratings plummeting.
''These last five years we've been hit with unexpected challenges -- a recession, 9/11, homeland security, the war on terror, Katrina. They've required action and investment,'' said Republican Senate Leader Bill Frist, one of a half-dozen 2008 White House hopefuls who addressed nearly 2,000 mostly conservative activists from 26 states at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
''But they're not justification for a one-way ticket down a wayward path of wasteful Washington spending,'' he said.
The conference offered a glimpse of the future for a party contemplating life after Bush. With November's congressional election looming and approval ratings skidding for Bush and the Republican-led Congress, attendees said the party had strayed from its core principles of limited government, fiscal responsibility and conservative social values.
''Conservatism sells. Our poll numbers right now are not about us being conservative, our poll numbers are because people don't know who we are anymore,'' said US Sen Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
While every speaker pledged loyalty to Bush, many attendees said it was time to move on. Something was broken in Washington, and they want a leader who can fix it, they said.
''I'm not blaming George Bush, I support the president, but I'm looking forward to the future,'' said Rick Mayhan of Corinth, Mississippi. ''It would be nice to go six months without a controversy out of Washington.'' Melba Isbell of Marietta, Mississippi, said she liked Bush ''but they have let things slip. I'm looking for a good conservative.'' WIDE-OPEN 2008 RACE Frist, Massachusetts Gov Mitt Romney, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Sens John McCain of Arizona, George Allen of Virginia and Sam Brownback of Kansas, all potential 2008 candidates, appeared at the conference.
They are among nearly a dozen Republicans who could seek the White House in 2008. Opinion polls show McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani are the most popular possible Republican White House contenders. Giuliani did not attend.
Conference participants voted in a straw poll to choose an early favorite. Frist, who packed the home-state crowd with supporters, won easily over second-place finisher Romney.
McCain urged participants to support Bush by writing in the president's name, and Bush finished in a tie for third with Allen.
''We all love George Bush and follow George Bush, but everyone is looking for who will be next,'' said Linda Roberts of Dyersburg, Tennessee. She said she liked Frist and Allen but was not sure about McCain.
''He is a bit more liberal than I would like,'' she said.
David French, a Columbia, Tennessee, lawyer, said he backed Romney because he was a conservative who could work with opponents in heavily Democratic Massachusetts.
''In '08 we need a standard bearer who is not going to be in the same mold as Bush,'' French said. ''People are tired of the polarization. In Romney, you have someone who is articulate, charismatic and believes what the heartland believes.'' Most of the activists said they would support any Republican who wins the nomination. Their biggest concern was finding someone who can beat the Democrats.
''I'm for any Republican who can get elected,'' said Craig Capehart of Dallas, Texas. ''It would be nice if they also had policies that would be good for the country.'' Reuters KD VP0015