Conservatives Learn To Live With McCain

Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., center, accompanied by former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, left, and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., speaks at a news conference in Annapolis, Md. Monday, Feb. 11, 2008. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) AP

This story was written by David Paul Kuhn.


Conservatives have already found something to like about John McCain: They think he can win in November.

According to interviews with a dozen leading conservatives at the recently concluded Conservative Political Action Conference, movement leaders believe McCain brings significant advantages to the top of the ticket.

"The public who wants change is comfortable with John McCain, whom they view as someone who is not a wholly owned subsidiary of the Bush administration," said former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating.

The very issues that have estranged McCain from much of the conservative base "have actually strengthened him with moderates," Keating added.

Part of McCain's newfound appeal rests on his perceived distance from President Bush.

"The unhappiness is with Bush and not the Republican agenda," said Grover Norquist, a leading fiscal conservative activist.

Norquist saw parallels with the 2007 election of conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who followed the administration of fellow conservative Jacques Chirac.

"This is Sarkozy saying, 'I'm not Chirac,'" Norquist said of McCain in the coming race. "I'm the change, and she's [opponent Segolene Royal] the socialist."

Of course, McCain still has a ways to go in mending rifts with opponents and rallying an unenthused base.

At one conference session, a speaker asked the audience whether Republicans were going in the right direction. Perhaps a dozen raised their hand "yes." There were thousands sitting in the hall.

When Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a leading conservative in the House, endorsed McCain on Friday, he rhetorically asked, "What are conservatives supposed to do now?"

One man yelled skeptically: "Tell us!" Later, as Pence spoke well of McCain, a woman extended her arm and gave a thumbs-down.

"Republicans believe in markets. We also should believe in political markets," Pence said after his speech to the convention. "And the market has spoken here. Not the party fathers, not pundits, the American people. Republican voters have given us a soldier, and it just may be what the Republican Party needs to take that hill in 2008."

Pence said that if a reunion between McCain and the base occurs, "what appeals to independents and moderates is already in the package."

With McCain as the presumptive nominee, many conservatives no longer believe Republicans are fated to lose in November - a shift from last year's dour outlook. The turmoil within the base, many said, will prove ephemeral.

Much of the change in thinking can be traced to the events of the last week. First, Super Tuesday left Democrats preparing for a protracted and heated battle. Second, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's resignation from the race on Thursday effectively sealed McCain's bid for the nomination.

In the view of many conservatives, Romney's quick withdrawal left time for McCain to unite the party before reaching out to those voters lost in the devastating 2006 midterm elections.

"There is general acceptance of McCain as the nominee and they are thinking, 'How can we work best together?'" Norquist said.

Few Republicans disagree that the hill ahead is steep. The war in Iraq remains unpopular, though less so of late. Only a quarter of the public thinks the country is heading in the "right direction." Bush's approval rating, hovering around 30 percent, is a millstone weighing the party down.

"History tells you that the Republicans shouldn't be able to win in 2008," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "But history is made up of exceptional acts. We still have a divided electorate. In the main, on most values issues, the public leans conservative."

Another conservaive House leader, Rep. Thaddeus G. McCotter (R-Mich.), said that though he was not an early supporter of McCain, he would nevertheless stand by him in the general election. He added that he also now believes that "this should be a close election."

Many Republicans believe that the base will come together once the race turns to a "contrast" - to use South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint's words - between the Republican and Democratic nominee. The alternative to McCain, according to this line of thinking, may be as much of a factor for the GOP as McCain himself.

"Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson or Haley Barbour may all be more conservative than John McCain. But he's not going to be running against any of us. He's going to be running against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama," said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

"In 2004, there's an enormous premium on uniting and motivating and turning out your base. My opinion is 2008 is going to be much more of an election about persuasion," Barbour continued. "McCain as our candidate actually benefits from that more than a Haley Barbour would."

Even longtime conservative activists such as Paul Weyrich, who remains disheartened by the idea of a McCain nomination, believes that the coming general election offers Republicans newfound opportunities.

Though Weyrich believes New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton "is clearly an easier target because her negatives are so high," he also argued that Democrats have not considered Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's "weaknesses."

Most Republicans cite both Democrats' relative inexperience compared with McCain. But many conservatives interviewed, like Weyrich, said the recent nonpartisan National Journal ranking of Obama as the most liberal senator illustrates a significant vulnerability.

"I think [Democrats] really don't know what's coming," Weyrich said. "In other words, they don't really understand that his philosophy, his viewpoint, is going to be made an issue. Right now he has been winning on oratory and personality. Both of which are outstanding. But once people begin to understand where he is, and that he is really the same as Hillary on most everything, I think it's going to be a different story."

Conservatives also said that they believe an extended contest between Obama and Clinton will further divide Democrats. And many said the Democratic race has exposed weaknesses they did not foresee at the outset of the presidential race.

"Conservatives realize that Hillary Clinton is not a 10-foot giant and the newcomer has got his problems," Keene said. "They see the Democrats involved in a fight that is going to go on and on and a fight that is going to get more and more bitter. So they are looking at a very different landscape than they did a year or so ago."
By David Paul Kuhn

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