Republican presidential hopeful Sam Brownback on Thursday called for a return to an American culture that promotes family values — a theme meant to set the conservatives’ favorite son apart in a growing GOP field.

The Kansas senator, in an interview with The Associated Press, also urged the United States to push more aggressively for Iraq to achieve "political equilibrium" even if it means partitioning the country along ethnic and religious lines.

"I’m saying, and I hope the Iraqi leadership is hearing it: We will not face the American public in 2008 with a situation that looks anything similar to where we are today … American deployment of troops on the front line conducting the military operations," Brownback said.

Congress also should resist the impulse to stymie Iraqi efforts to grant insurgents amnesty if such proposals are "a significant part" of a political solution aimed at ending the nearly four-year-old conflict, said the senator.

In an hourlong interview with AP reporters and editors, Brownback discussed his presidential aspirations and his positions on issues such as the war, families, energy and immigration. The easygoing Kansas lawmaker launched an exploratory committee on Monday to gauge support for a potential White House run.

Despite being revered by the GOP’s conservative wing for his staunch opposition to gay marriage and abortion as well as his record of fiscal restraint, Brownback is considered a long shot to win the nomination because he lacks the national recognition of other possible rivals.

For their part, Arizona Sen. John McCain, widely considered the front-runner, and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, seen as McCain’s most serious challenger so far, have a solid head start in organizing their expected campaigns.

Both are hiring staffers for key positions and announcing supporters across the country each day. McCain’s exploratory committee, for example, said Thursday that Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., was on board in Utah — home to the headquarters of Romney’s Mormon church and his family’s ski home.

Meantime, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani also is considering a run. He is courting backers and plans to hold his first fundraiser Dec. 19 in Manhattan.

A year before the first votes are cast, all three are seen as more likely than Brownback to win the nomination. But all three, to a certain extent, have records or positions on social or fiscal issues that don’t sit well with the Republican base.

Thus, Brownback sees a natural opening in the field for someone of his ilk, particularly in Iowa, the first state to hold a primary contest.

"I am an economic, a fiscal, a social and a compassionate conservative," he said.

"I’m the one that has been there, is there and will be there in the future," he added, a subtle dig at his potential rivals who are trying to claim the conservative mantle.

Positioning himself as the traditional values candidate, Brownback said his campaign’s main focus would be "to save and improve lives, rebuild families and renew the culture" in the United States that supports the institution of family.

"We don’t have enough family formation taking place in this country," the father of five said. "We know the best place to raise children is between a mom and a dad. It’s not the only place, and you can raise great kids in many different settings, and people do, and they struggle heroically to do it."

"Raising kids is difficult, and it’s difficult, too when you have a culture that doesn’t particularly support you, but is constantly pulling away," Brownback added.

Under questioning, Brownback said it’s mostly up to states to decide whether single parents or gay couples could adopt children, and he declined to comment on Mary Cheney, the vice president’s lesbian daughter whose recently disclosed pregnancy has prompted dismay among conservatives.

On another issue sure to be central to his would-be campaign, Brownback said the country is finally serious about taking the steps to reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

As part of a broader energy plan, the senator said he would be willing to consider changing his position on fuel economy standards to require automakers to make vehicles that go farther on a gallon of gas. Brownback has opposed a raise in the so-called CAFE standards but said he would support one as long as it wasn’t too steep to endanger the U.S. auto industry while it is at financial risk.

As for Iraq, Brownback’s remarks came one day after a bipartisan commission issued a blunt assessment that called for an urgent diplomatic attempt to stabilize the country and allow withdrawal of most U.S. combat troops by early 2008.

Brownback said he agreed with the commission’s timetable, and urged the United States to engage other countries as well as push for a political solution.

"We are not willing to impose a military solution in Iraq. The Iraqis, I don’t believe, are going to be capable of imposing a military solution. Therefore, you must get to some form of political equilibrium in Iraq. And by that I think you may end up having to have a Kurdish, a Sunni, a Shiite area, and Baghdad being a federal capital. Hopefully you can maintain it in one country," he said.

Despite the current state of Iraq, he declined to call the 2003 invasion a mistake.

"I’ve met with too many troops that have put their lives on the line, and too many families who have lost soldiers to say that," he said.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press