Conservatives Still Resentful Of McCain

Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., listens as President Bush speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
This story was written by political reporter David Miller.

John McCain, now the Republican Party's presumed presidential nominee, may have the votes of the movement conservatives who first fueled the "Reagan Revolution" in the late 1970 and early 1980s, but if the reactions of those attending a key gathering in Washington this week are any indication, McCain has a lot of work to do if he wants their time or their money.

Bitterness and distrust toward the Arizona senator were common sentiments expressed by those attending the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering that attracts the people most loyal to conservative ideology, whether the topic is national security, economic policy or social policy.

People entering the Omni Shoreham hotel were greeted Thursday by a group holding crude cardboard signs that said "Join Republicans Against McCain" and "McCain = Amnesty." Laura Ingraham, one of many conservative talk radio hosts who have bashed McCain, asked "What have you done for us lately?" to overwhelming applause as she introduced Mitt Romney, who would exit the race minutes later.

And during a question and answer segment of one seminar, a man in the audience asked that attendees not boo the Arizona senator. They did anyway - especially when he brought up his differences with the vast majority of the audience over how to address the issue of illegal immigration.

"He only showed up here when he realized he had no chance without conservative support, while he has poked us in the eye so many times," said Tricia Galloway, a Romney backer who saw McCain speak. "His dirty tricks against Romney have alienated a lot of people. They'll vote for him, but they won't contribute to his campaign."

Galloway was referring to McCain's claim, made prior to the Jan. 29 Florida primary, that Romney had backed a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq - an idea favored by many Democrats but soundly rejected by conservatives.

McCain's tactics, however, are only one of many issues staunch conservatives have with him - issues he'll need to address to make sure bitter feelings don't linger and ensure the party's conservative base is mobilized for the general election.

McCain's stance on immigration is the basis for his most well-known beef with conservatives, but others attending CPAC decried his support for the campaign finance overhaul legislation known as McCain-Feingold, which opponents say restricts free speech and has crippled the Republican Party's fundraising efforts. They're also not fans of his initial opposition to tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, his strong opposition to controversial interrogation techniques like waterboarding, his support of caps on carbon emissions as a way to curb global warming, and his inclusion in a group of senators that prevented Republicans from enacting rule changes to make it easier for President Bush's judicial picks to win confirmation.

Some conservatives don't even like the way he talks.

"He's taken on some of the lingo of the left and that infuriates people," said Patrick Nee, who was set to be one of Romney's convention delegates representing Rhode Island. "He says that when he opposed the tax cuts, it was because they didn't include spending cuts, but back then he said it was because it hurt poor and middle class people - that's class warfare. On immigration, he said his opponents were xenophobes and racists. He attacks profit. He attacks the rule of law. He attacks all we stand for."

His friend, Christopher McAuliffe, was as halfhearted in his support of McCain as Nee was angry in his opposition.

"I'll go into the voting booth and vote for him, but I won't do much beyond that," he said. "I'll always support the nominee of the party within reason, but this scratches the edge of what I consider within reason."

The anger and apathy is to be expected from people whose favorite candidate just left the race, said former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a McCain supporter.

"I really think that anyone who's gone through a divorce is going to have a tough couple of months," he said. "On all the issues, McCain's their man. It'll take a few weeks for them to understand it, but they will."

One issue that will bring conservatives under McCain's wing, Keating said, is judicial appointments - particularly to the Supreme Court. Conservatives have been overwhelmingly pleased by Mr. Bush's choices of John Roberts and Samuel A. Alito to the court and won't want to see a Democratic president prevent the court from taking on a clear rightward tilt.

"Are they going to sit back and let that happen? I don't think so," Keating said. "The next president could appoint a majority of the Supreme Court."

Elected Republicans were already working to heal any rifts. Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, who had previously backed former Sen. Fred Thompson's bid, urged attendees to remember that their political idol once faced rejection and they would be unwise to do the same to McCain.

"Let us not forget how Ronald Reagan was treated in 1976, up to his nomination in 1980, and even thereafter," he said, referring to Reagan's failed bid to wrest the nomination from incumbent Gerald R. Ford. "As we would have others do unto us, let us do the same unto them."

In an encouraging sign for McCain, some - though not many - did put aside their differences with him after hearing him speak. Margaret Baird of Louisiana came to CPAC supporting Romney and, though she was disappointed by his departure from the race, said she's ready to not only vote for McCain, but also rally her friends around his candidacy and send some money his way.

"I was going to hold my nose when I vote, but now I can do it enthusiastically," she said. "He was reaching out. He was conciliatory. I'm so happy I'm not depressed anymore."
By David Miller