Conservatives looking for reason to get behind McCain
Enter John McCain – a Republican with a history of clashing with his party’s right flank.
For the first time in three decades, Republicans are likely to nominate a presidential candidate who lost the conservative and evangelical votes in the primaries. Even as McCain reached out to them Thursday during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, some made no attempt to hide their distaste.
Amid the cheers, there were boos. Placards denounced McCain’s past support for changes in immigration policies. In the halls, public and private arguments erupted over his candidacy.
“We’re really in uncharted waters,” Republican strategist Ralph Reed said as he surveyed the conservative scene from the wings of a ballroom. “You have to go back to 1976 when (Gerald) Ford beat (Ronald) Reagan when a presumptive nominee has walked into this room and the overwhelming majority of these people voted or supported somebody else.”
McCain is reaching out. He skipped the conservative conference last year. This time, he addressed the gathering only hours after rival Mitt Romney used his own speech to the conference to bow out of the race.
“We have had a few disagreements, and none of us will pretend that we won’t continue to have a few,” McCain told the gathering. “But even in disagreement, especially in disagreement, I will seek the counsel of my fellow conservatives.”
McCain has angered conservatives over the years for working with Democrats on changing campaign finance laws, on climate change legislation and on immigration. They also see him as a renegade for voting against President Bush’s tax cuts and helping organize a bipartisan group of lawmakers to preserve the right to filibuster some judicial nominees.
Still, after Romney announced his departure from the race, speaker after speaker Thursday beseeched the activists to unite behind the party’s eventual nominee. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who had endorsed Romney, said conservatives need “to empower Senator McCain to carry our conservative values.”
“We need him as much as he needs us,” DeMint said.
Another Romney backer, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., did not attend the conference but offered McCain a lukewarm endorsement despite recently raising questions about McCain’s temperament. “I am supporting John McCain for the Republican nomination for president,” Cochran said in a statement. “I supported Romney because I thought he would be the better choice for president.”
Several evangelical leaders, including former presidential candidate Gary Bauer and Jonathan Falwell, son of the late Jerry Falwell, also appeared willing to give McCain a hearing and had planned to meet with him privately Thursday. McCain had to reschedule due to votes in the Senate.
Others gave McCain no quarter. “I’m heartsick,” Ray Pickles, an electrical engineer from Vienna, Va., declared as he held up one end of a banner that equated McCain with amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The question left lingering is whether conservatives will rally for McCain with the kind of enthusiasm core Democratic voters are showing for Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. Several conservatives interviewed Thursday at the conference said McCain could signal his embrace by selecting a running mate with credibility with the right wing, by talking more about conservative values and the nation’s culture in addition to tax cuts and fighting terrorism.
“If John McCain does nothing, he’s nominated and wins the nomination of the Republican Party, most conservatives will vote for him,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “But ’most conservatives’ is not enough to win the election, it’s not enough to secure your base.”
For McCain, it is a delicate dance. The Arizona senator is on the verge of locking up the nomination thanks to the votes of moderate Republicans and unaligned voters. During this week’s coast-to-coast Super Tuesday contests, McCain had more than a 2-to-1 edge over Romney among moderates. Romney compensated by getting almost half the votes of people calling themselves very conservative, well ahead of McCain and Mike Huckabee. Among white, born-again and evangelical Christians, Huckabee won, taking almost four in 10 of their votes.
McCain has won over independents and moderates by burnishing his image as a maverick and straight talker willing to buck his own party.
“Those are candidate attributes of his he doesn’t want to surrender,” said Reed, the former director of the Christian Coalition. “So he’s walking a very fine line. But in a closely fought, competitive campaign that I think will be decided by a few points, Senator McCain is going to need the conservative grassroots of the party in the boat.”
One option openly discussed Thursday by religious conservatives was the possibility of McCain picking Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who is staunchly anti-abortion, as his running mate. Huckabee picked up the endorsement Thursday of the prominent evangelical leader James Dobson.
“That is the only thing that is going to bring the evangelicals and the right wing base of the organization into the camp,” said Robert Upton, a Pentecostal minister from Indiana.
But that is where religious conservatives and fiscal conservatives part ways.
Economic conservatives complain that Huckabee’s tenure as governor of Arkansas was marked by tax increases and liberal policies on immigration and law enforcement.
Keene noted that among the conservative criticism of McCain is his stance on immigration and his votes against Bush’s tax cuts.
“The problems that conservatives have with Huckabee are what? Immigration and taxes,” he said. “I think you’re doubling up your problem.”