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Mr. Viguerie made another point that several other CNP members made confidentially: “He didn’t assure us he would bring conservatives into his White House or administration.”

Mr. McCain, a onetime prisoner of war in Hanoi, was asked about his personal faith. He responded, Mr. Viguerie said, by telling us about the North Vietnamese guard who signaled his sympathy for McCain by drawing a cross in the dirt with his toes, but McCain didn’t tell us anything about his own faith.”

The saddest part, Mr. Viguerie said, was that neither Mr. McCain nor his campaign advisers “realized he fumbled the ball or why.”

When Mrs. Crouse was asked whether she and her organization would work hard to help elect Mr. McCain in November, she said: “I think most conservatives will support him because he is more conservative than the two choices — Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — for the Democratic Party.”

But she expressed a proviso that some other CNP members also shared.

“On the other hand,” she said, “he will not find an electorate that is inspired, that will plant signs in their yards, that will mobilize their neighbors and do everything they can to get him elected. They will go to the polls and that is about it.”

Unless, that is, “he chooses a strong social-conservative vice presidential candidate,” she added.

On the proposed Law of the Seas Treaty that President Bush supports and that conservatives generally oppose, Mr. McCain split the difference, saying the treaty as proposed surrenders “way too much” of America’s sovereignty, but it needs to be renegotiated because international law needs “coherence” in this area.

Reporters covering the McCain campaign were seated in a nearby room and could listen to his speech and the questions and answers afterward, but they were not permitted to see or mingle with the audience — made up of CNP members only.

Some CNP attendees said they found Mr. McCain more humorous and self-deprecating — and more vigorous and youthful-looking — than they expected and that he earned repeated applause and laughter throughout his appearance.

“John McCain was pleased to be invited to the CNP and felt he received a warm reception and that people were open-minded,” said Charlie Black, a senior McCain campaign adviser.

Most CNP members queried after the speech said Mr. McCain would get the conservative vote if for no other reason than the alternatives — Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton — were so unacceptable, especially on Iraq and the war against “Islamic Jihad.”