John McCain made a sale at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
To be sure, there were scattered boos as he tried to make nice to the conservatives he declined to speak to last year.
Some conservatives said they could never bring themselves to vote for a man who voted against President Bush’s tax cuts, was responsible for the campaign finance law, and pushed for amnesty for illegal immigrants. But I talked with dozens of conservative leaders after McCain’s talk, and every one of them thought the Arizona senator sounded the right notes in his speech and said they felt inclined to support him.
What was impressive about McCain’s speech was its sincerity.
He did not claim he would change his positions. He did not try to rewrite his own record, as he has in the past. He said he would listen to what conservatives have to say, and while he might change on some issues, he hoped they would understand if he does not. Finally, by avoiding specifics, the man in line to be the Republican candidate for president made common cause with conservatives.
“I believe today, as I believed 25 years ago, in small government; fiscal discipline; low taxes; a strong defense; judges who enforce, and not make, our laws; the social values that are the true source of our strength; and, generally, the steadfast defense of our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which I have defended my entire career as God-given to the born and unborn,” McCain said.
“He can’t solve his problems with one speech to one organization because they’re deep,” David Keene president of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, told me. “But I think he approached it in the right way. He didn’t sound phony, he recognized problems, he basically said let’s talk, let’s see if we can’t work our problems out.”
McCain’s honest approach, coupled with the specter of what would happen if a Democrat became president, were enough to convince the leaders I talked with at CPAC’s VIP reception and elsewhere to support McCain.
As columnist Robert Novak said in an after-dinner speech, those who say they will not vote for McCain, or will vote for a Democrat instead, are advocating “madness.”
Indeed, it is easy to overlook the importance of electing a president who will not roll back the clock to pre-911 thinking in protecting the country from terrorism. As outlined in my book “The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack,” the fact that we have not been attacked in more than six years is no accident: It’s because of dozens of initiatives taken by Bush to make us safer and allow the FBI and CIA to do their jobs to uncover plots before they happen.
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As just one example of what a Democrat would do in the White House, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama voted last August to essentially give Osama bin Laden and other terrorists the same rights Americans have when intercepting their conversations, even when all parties to a call are overseas.
If their votes had prevailed, warrants would have to be obtained for tens of thousands of telephone numbers, bringing to a standstill the government’s ability to uncover clues to the next attack.
The disregard for our safety demonstrated by that vote alone should be enough to make every American vote for a Republican candidate.
McCain is most convincing when he talks about his determination to hunt down the terrorists, stay on offense, and never retreat in failure from Iraq, allowing that country to become a mega-training camp for terrorists.
Saying Clinton’s and Obama’s resolve to combat the threats “will be as flawed as their judgment” about what brought about the threats, McCain told the CPAC audience, “I intend to defeat that threat by staying on offense and by marshaling every relevant agency of our government, and our allies, in the urgent necessity of defending the values, virtues and security of free people against those who despise all that is good about us.”
As FBI Director Robert Mueller has told me, al-Qaida’s goal is to wipe us out with nuclear attacks. If that were to happen, all the issues that are dear to conservatives would be meaningless.
Announcing his withdrawal from the race, Mitt Romney sounded that note. As an astute businessman, Romney’s decision was driven by the numbers. As a Romney aide told me, everyone on the campaign recognized after the Florida primary results that the effort was in trouble.
But Romney — whose announcement brought gasps and tears to many in the CPAC audience — also understands the threat we face and the importance of getting behind a Republican who will not back down in this epic struggle for our survival.
“I must now stand aside, for our party and our country,” Romney told conservatives. “If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.”
“I think it’s a noble thing that he did, because he realized it was probably in the best interests of the party to step aside,” said Rachel Quigley, a Cornell University student, as she left the ballroom at Washington’s Omni Shoreham where Romney gave his speech. “I really admire him for that. I think he’s had strong character the whole time.”
While many will debate the fine points of Romney’s campaign, I believe — as do many of his top aides — that his biggest problem was that he had to run both against his opponents and the mainstream media. From the beginning, the media focused on his religion and painted him as a flip-flopper. In fact, as Keene told me, McCain changed positions on many more issues than did Romney. But the mainstream media have always loved McCain because he gives them access and great quotes and because his positions on many domestic issues are liberal.
Close to half the references to Romney in the media refer to his Mormon religion, yet few stories mention that he is both a Harvard Law School and a Harvard Business School graduate, credentials that are far more relevant to becoming president.
Just as conservatives at CPAC were ready to support McCain, they also held out hope that Romney would run for president again at some point in the future. As many of them pointed out to me, most recent presidents have tried and failed before finally achieving their goal of entering the White House.
“After his public speech, Romney met with leaders of the movement and, as you know in his public speech, he said he expected to be here again next year and after that,” said Dave Keene. “And at his private speech, he said that he wanted to be one of the foot soldiers of the modern conservative movement, and he would do whatever is needed in whatever capacity he could to help. So whether or not he runs for president again, I think he’s pretty well committed.”
As the exit polls made clear, Romney was the overwhelming favorite of conservatives and especially of strong conservatives. During his remarks leading up to his dramatic announcement, applause for Romney exceeded the applause for Vice President Dick Cheney. When Ronald Reagan chose to speak to CPAC after his election as president, some of his aides asked why. Reagan said he sees going to CPAC as “my opportunity to dance with the one that brung ya.”
The fact that Romney chose to bring his campaign to an end at CPAC was not lost on conservatives.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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