Sen. John McCain made a spirited and generally well-received attempt to win support from movement conservatives Thursday, in a humble and at times self-deprecating speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.
Key conservatives have been openly hostile toward McCain. Some, including one of the fathers of the modern conservative movement, Paul Weyrich, have said they could “never vote for McCain.”
But the wind was taken out of conservative sails earlier in the day when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told CPAC that he was withdrawing from the race.
The two Republican rivals conferred by telephone before Romney’s concession speech, in which Romney said he felt it was more important to win the war on terror than to fight a war within his own party.
McCain was introduced Thursday by former Sen. George Allen, who had been the great hope of many conservatives before his U.S. Senate re-election campaign blew up in 2006 after he called a Democrat stalker a “macaca.”
Allen fired the first salvo in the campaign to woo conservative activists.
“Fellow conservatives, you are essential team members in our cause,” he said. He pointed to McCain’s strong record in supporting the war on terror, and his efforts in the Senate to cut government waste.
“There is no more ferocious advocate for stopping wasteful spending than John McCain,” Allen said.
Sen. Tom Coburn, another hero of the conservative movement, said that McCain had the “determination, guts and experience” to combat Islamic fascism, which was the greatest threat facing America.
In his remarks, McCain displayed a combination of humility and humor to win over his audience.
“It’s been a little while since I’ve had the honor of addressing you,” McCain began, drawing snickers from many in the audience.
Last year, McCain pointedly refused to join other potential Republican candidates at CPAC, but he joked that he had not wanted to give the impression he was the front-runner. “I lost that soon enough. I hope I can hold onto it this time,” he said to laughter.
“I have a responsibility to unite the party and prepare … for November,” McCain said. He said he was fully aware that he could not win “without the support of dedicated conservatives.”
McCain’s biggest stumbling block with movement conservatives was his support for President Bush’s amnesty bill for illegal aliens. Just the mention of the word “immigration” generated a chorus of boos and catcalls.
McCain chuckled, and stood back from the microphone until the room died down. “It’s a position that still angers some people,” he said with a laugh.
“We failed,” he said. “I accept that. I have pledged that it will be my highest priority to secure our borders first,” he said. He pledged to “offer Americans a clearly conservative approach to governing” during the election campaign.
While the audience gave him a lukewarm welcome at first, they gradually warmed as McCain spoke of the importance of the war on terror and drew stark differences between himself and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, who he said had “muddled judgment” and “would take this country backward.”
“This election is going to be about big things, not small things,” he said. “The Democrats intend to expand the size of the federal government; I will reduce it.”
The crowd jumped to their feet when McCain vowed, “I won’t sign a bill with earmarks – any earmarks – in it” and vowed to make the Bush tax cuts permanent.
Just as significant as anything McCain said was his attitude, according to many participants and key players in the conservative movement who spoke to Newxmax afterwards.
“I was skeptical that he would be sufficiently humble,” said Colin Hanna of Let Freedom Ring. “He moved me much more than I expected. He showed humor, humility, and honesty. If he continues, he could actually secure the support of the conservative movement.”
Morton Blackwell, who heads the Leadership Institute and is a board member of the American Conservative Union, the CPAC organizer, said that as a Republican committeeman (from Virginia) he would support the party’s nominee no matter what.
“McCain understands it’s not going to be easy to unite the conservative coalition, but it needs to be united if we’re going to win in November,” Blackwell told Newsmax.
Jim Martin, of the 60 Plus Association, said the speech was “a nice step forward. I was encouraged.” However, he noted that conservatives would be voting “more against Hillary than for McCain.”
David Horowitz, who has played a key role in mobilizing grass-roots support among conservatives for the war on terror, was more upbeat.
“McCain is the only candidate we have who can win the general against Hillary,” Horowitz told Newsmax. “He understands that the main issue is the war. And social conservatives should be happy, because he is pro-life. He could pull together a new conservative coalition, a winning coalition.”
Even David Bossie, president of Citizens United, a group that ran ads that called McCain “as liberal as Hillary Clinton,” was ready to make peace with the apparent Republican nominee.
“I ran my ad campaign when we had an option. Now we have no option. I’m a fan of not falling on the sword, and a Republican president is better than Hillary or Barack Obama – especially with the war, which is what matters.”
Bossie says he was favorably impressed by McCain’s pledge to veto earmarks and to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. “But in order to win, he has to energize the base.”
Can McCain perform that magic with a Republican base that has been notoriously hostile to him in the past?
McCain went out of his way to reassure and woo this conservative crowd.
“I’ve held positions you don’t like. I won’t pretend otherwise,” he said. As the catcalls began, he laughed good-naturedly. “And you won’t allow me to forget it,” he added.
If elected, he said he would govern as a conservative. “Even in disagreement, I will seek the counsel of my fellow conservatives,” he pledged.
If they could convince him that he was wrong – as he now admits he was wrong on immigration, and on McCain-Feingold – “then I will change my position,” he pledged.
Said Dave Wallace, a Republican activist in Montgomery County, Md., who had not come to CPAC as a McCain supporter, the candidate convinced.
“This speech made a difference,” he said. “It changed my mind. Especially when he acknowledged his error in McCain-Feingold. Who knows, maybe he’ll be the one person who can actually correct it!”
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