Campaign Notebook: McCain Tries To Woo Conservatives At CPAC

The most appropriate word from the entire opening day of speeches at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., was not Hillary, Iraq, Islam, terror, or even Democrat, but simply the word but.

The buts were practically bouncing off the gold walls of the Omni Hotel ballroom yesterday, flying out of senators' mouths, shooting through the air, and landing with a thud inside the skulls of the several thousand conservative faithful in attendance.

Sen. John McCain, the Republican Party's presumptive nominee, addressed the largely white and well-dressed crowd shortly after 3:00 p.m. He had come, to be sure, with a tall order of business: to convince the mostly right-wing audience that he is, in fact, a candidate they can trust. The crux of his argument, and the argument of his supporters, came down to the word but.

Here, for instance, was George Allen, the former Virginia senator, standing on stage and commenting on his decision to support McCain: "John and I have strong disagreement on some issues, but..."

And here was Tom Coburn, the senator of Oklahoma, introducing McCain a few minutes later: "He may not always tell us what we want to hear, but..."

And here, finally, was McCain himself, wearing a red tie and blue shirt, smiling and nodding, taking to the podium, thanking his friends, and then, for about 30 minutes, speaking steadily and resolutely to an audience that was cordial but not convinced, respectful but not enraptured; an audience that was, in a phrase, guardedly supportive but holding reservations that quickly became audible.

"Many of you have disagreed strongly with some positions I have taken in recent years," McCain said. "I understand that. I might not agree with it, but I respect it for the principled position it is."

He continued: "And it is my sincere hope that even if you believe I have occasionally erred in my reasoning as a fellow conservative, you will still allow that I have, in many ways important to all of us, maintained the record of a conservative."

The buts that he gave in support of his conservative voting record could be parsed into categories: national security, limited government, tax cuts, right to life. On Thursday the McCain camp's strategy was not to deny his Senate record or to lacquer it with spin but rather to acknowledge the discord up front, if only in passing, and to focus instead on the areas of agreement between the audience and candidate.

On most issues the audience responded politely. McCain ticked off a list of the principles, conservative principles, he has stressed in the campaign. He opposes "big government mandated healthcare," wants reductions in the corporate tax rate, and of course supports the surge. Pockets of people stood up and even cheered loudly at times. No doubt the reception was helped by Mitt Romney's announcement earlier in the day that he would be ending his candidacy, all but crowning McCain the nominee.

Even so, conservatives were not ready to roll over without airing a bit of their ambivalence and even distaste first. The mere mention of illegal immigration was enough to rip the skin off the barely concealed divisions. In fact, McCain had barely said the words -- "On the issue of illegal immigration" -- and that was about as far as he got. A low chorus of boos quickly erupted. These lasted for a few seconds, until someone yelled, "Let him speak!" and the booing quickly gave way to equally loud applause.

McCain, smiling and grasping the podium and waiting for the emotions to stabilize, noted that his record on immigration "obviously still provokes outspoken opposition." He then added that one of his highest priorities as president would be to "secure our borders first."

McCain finished speaking, and the audience spilled out into the hallway, and here and there clusters of two or three or fur were forming, all taking stock of what they had just heard. In the hotel foyer, one level up, several individuals were carrying signs that read "Stop McCain's Amnesty" in red letters. Others had on white T-shirts: "McCain = Amnesty."

Others simply looked dispirited. Ruth Malhotra, the chairman of the Georgia Tech College Republicans, was still wearing a button on her shirt that said "Evangelicals for Romney." Malhotra said she objects to many of McCain's actions in the Senate, such as his coauthorship with Sen. Russ Feingold of campaign finance reform laws that she says infringe upon the First Amendment. "I know you need to work with Democrats sometimes," she said. "But it's another thing to walk across the aisle and actually become one of them."

If nothing else, McCain's presence at CPAC seemed to be an indication of his overtures to conservatives that he is, as Malhotra says, one of them. He didn't attend last year's meeting, a fact he acknowledged in his speech. "I hope you will pardon my absence last year," he said, and then he joked, "I was merely preoccupied with the business of trying to escape the distinction of preseason front-runner for the Republican nomination."

He then added more seriously: "But, now, I again have the privilege of that distinction, and this time I would prefer to hold on to it for a while." To do so, conservatives say he needs their help.

By Kent Garber