ONTARIO, Calif. - Rep. Duncan Hunter is urging home-state conservative activists to back his long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination, saying he would build the Mexican border fence immediately, crack down on Chinese trade practices and appoint only anti-abortion judges to the bench.
The conservative California Republican Assembly, meeting in this San Bernardino County city over the weekend, heard from the Alpine Republican on Friday night.
"If I have a judicial candidate in front of me who can look at a sonogram of an unborn child and not see a valuable human life, I will not appoint that candidate to the federal bench," Hunter said.
The crowd of about 200 was receptive to Hunter's red-meat rhetoric, but largely noncommittal when it came to his 2008 presidential candidacy.
"I liked a lot of what Congressman Hunter had to say, but he's a second-tier candidate at the moment," said Rick Marshall, a Torrance software developer.
Hunter also stressed what has become one of the central themes of his campaign - his contention that the United States is losing its manufacturing base overseas, in large measure because of unfair Chinese trading practices.
"The arsenal of democracy is being pushed offshore at an alarming rate," he said. "That's our ability to manufacture - and one reason it's going is because China is cheating on trade."
Hunter voiced impatience with the Bush administration's lack of progress with what has long been his signature issue: building a fence to choke off the smuggling routes across the U.S.-Mexico border. He complained that Congress authorized 854 miles of new fencing last year, but only two miles have been built.
"If that fence isn't finished when I become president of the United States, I'm going to fix that fence in six months," he said.
Most national polls of potential voters show Hunter running in the low single digits. Financial disclosure reports from the first quarter of 2007 show him with about $273,000 in cash on hand - eighth among the nine announced GOP candidates.
Hunter's strategy has been to spend a great deal of time campaigning in South Carolina, home to many veterans and religious conservatives, which is third in line after Iowa and New Hampshire in the Republican nominating process.
He's trying to develop a following among GOP activists in South Carolina by placing a high priority on the numerous presidential straw polls conducted by local Republican organizations there.
"We're out there fighting at the grass-roots level," he said. "South Carolina is one of the first primaries. You've got to win it if you're going to have a chance to win."
With the 2008 presidential campaign already in high gear, conservative Republicans are a restive lot. They want to back a candidate with whom they're ideologically compatible, but one who can win.
Many find the three GOP front-runners - former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney - unacceptable, although for varied reasons.
"The one I really like personally, but I'll never vote for him because he's pro-abortion, is Rudolph Giuliani," said longtime Republican activist Betty Cordoba of San Marcos.
She said she doesn't have a clear favorite yet but has sent donations to four of the more conservative Republican hopefuls: Hunter, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado.
Many conservatives are waiting for someone - anyone - new to emerge, even if they aren't exactly sure who that might be. "I don't think my guy is in, and I don't know who he is," said former state Sen. Dick Mountjoy of Monrovia, who ran unsuccessfully last year against Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.