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Starting Gate: Mending Fences

Conservatives have plenty of policy differences with John McCain on issues like immigration, education and campaign finance reform. But underlying many of the complaints is a more visceral, personal animosity that is driven by the perception that the Arizona senator has a penchant for sticking his finger in the eye of those who disagree with him.

That dynamic was illustrated last year when McCain was the only major Republican presidential candidate not to attend the annual CPAC convention in Washington, DC. "It just didn't fit in with our schedule," McCain said at the time. It was another snub of a key block of the party and a reminder of the uncomfortable relationship between them.

The candidate who labeled some social conservative leaders as "agents of intolerance" in 2001 is now on the verge of winning the party's nomination and will try to repair the breach he has helped create with a speech at CPAC today. What McCain offers conservatives and how activists receive him will be closely watched to determine just how far the two sides have to come if they are to unify for the general election.

It would be an easier task if McCain were entering the speech with the nomination wrapped up, but Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee show no signs of giving up the firth despite the long odds they face. McCain is well over half way to locking up enough delegates to claim the nomination. According to CBS estimates, McCain has 699 delegates right now, compared to 162 for Huckabee and 157 for Romney (not all the Super Tuesday delegates have been estimated yet). With just over 1,300 delegates left on the table, the math isn't difficult. Romney or Huckabee would have to win huge majorities in mostly proportional contests to reach the 1,191 delegates needed for the nomination.

Romney will speak before McCain and will help set the tone. In the days leading up to Super Tuesday, Romney blistered McCain's conservative credentials, even calling the Arizona Senator a legislator with "liberal" ideas. If Romney keeps up the mantra today, he may well get a roar of approval. But with slim hopes of winning the nomination, does Romney want to play that role any longer?

The one name that we're certain to hear often today is Ronald Reagan, who launched the conservative movement at this same conference over two decades ago. His is the mantle GOP candidates have wrestled over during this campaign. Can McCain revive some of that Reagan magic today?

The Votes Are In: McCain may have a huge delegate lead but the race has been much closer on the ground. According to CBS News, McCain has won over 4.8 million votes cast so far while Romney has collected over 4.1 million and Huckabee just over 2.4 million. McCain owes a big thanks to Rudy Giuliani who helped engineer rules changes in New York and New Jersey to make them winner-take-all states. McCain won both on Tuesday.

The picture is different on the Democratic side. According to CBS News estimates, Hillary Clinton has a slim delegate lead over Barack Obama, 1,058 to 984 with super delegate estimates figured in. That difference mirrors the split in actual votes to date, with Clinton garnering 8,914,030 votes and Obama winning 8,392,514.

Fears Of A Brokered Convention: DNC chair Howard Dean probably isn't sleeping too well these days with the prospect of leading a brokered convention seeming more and more possible, if not likely. "The idea that we can afford to have a big fight at the convention and then win the race in the next eight weeks, I think, is not a good scenario," Dean told NY1 in an interview. "I think we will have a nominee sometime in the middle of March or April," he said, "but if we don't, then we're going to have to get the candidates together and make some kind of an arrangement. … I don't think we can afford to have a brokered convention -- that would not be good news for either party." Get those super delegates on speed dial.

Around The Track:

  • The Clinton campaign is keeping up their call for more debates. In a letter to Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, Clinton manager Patti Solis Doyle writes: "Senator Clinton believes voters should have more than one opportunity to see the candidates discuss the issues and has accepted five debates between now and March 4th from CNN, MSNBC, WJLA, ABC and Fox News. To that end, we hope Senator Obama will join Senator Clinton for a debate a week beginning this weekend. I'm sure we can find a suitable place to meet on the campaign trail. There's too much at stake and the issues facing the country are too grave to deny voters the opportunity to see the candidates up close.
  • Another sign of just how close the Democratic race is: Both Clinton and Obama received 6,001 votes in the city of Syracuse, according to preliminary results. According to Syracuse University mathematics professor Hyune-Ju Kim, the odds of that happening are less than one in one million. "It's almost impossible," Kim said.
  • Bloomberg news reports that Obama's campaign believes the race could well end up virtually tied when all the voting is said and done. One campaign projection has Obama ending with 1,806 delegates to 1,789 for Clinton. Those numbers do not include delegates from Florida or Michigan who remain in limbo or super delegates, half of whom the campaign estimates will split between the candidates and the other half remaining uncommitted and possibly determining the nomination.
  • At this point, does anything other than a Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton ticket work?
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