NEW ORLEANS — Sen. John McCain yesterday got mixed reviews from some of the conservative movement's top donors and leaders after he addressed — and then took questions from — members of the secretive Council for National Policy.
"We didn't lose the 2006 [congressional] elections because of Iraq, but because of runaway spending," the putative Republican presidential nominee told the annual winter meeting of the CNP, some of whose members are skeptical at best of his claims to represent their views and goals in his bid for the presidency.
He drew cheers and applause when he said he would veto a spending bill that had earmarks and vowed to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to "make famous" the names of lawmakers who author such pork-barrel spending measures.
Speaking without notes and without hesitation, he strode energetically back and forth across the stage at the Ritz Carlton in the city's French Quarter, making his points and calling on people who had raised their hands, according to audience members reached afterward.
Generally, Mr. McCain, a strong supporter of the Iraq war, has no problems with the "war hawks" in the conservative movement and is considered at least acceptable by fiscal and anti-tax conservatives. He addressed these issues in his speech but didn't get around to social and religious subjects until they were raised by audience members in the question and answer session.
"He did a great job of addressing fiscal conservative issues and defense conservative issues," said Rep. Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republican. "What he needs to do is start talking about social issues."
Asked what would happen if Mr. McCain failed to do that, Mr. Lamborn said only that "he will become more comfortable doing it the more often he addresses social conservative groups."
A CNP member expressed her approval privately because she did not want to involve the nonprofit association she represents.
"I appreciated his candor and consistency," she said. "He reminded us of things he truly is conservative about — prolife and taxes — and even went so far as to raise why he was for issues like global warming that conservatives don't necessarily agree on. Does it mean he persuaded me? No. Is my mind still open? Yes."
A more critical answer came from the president of a Washington-based social-conservative interest group on the condition of anonymity: "If McCain can't address the social issues at meeting like this, how can he do it out there" on the campaign trail?
Other social and religious conservatives in the CNP called his appearance a flop.
Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America said she asked him about the nearly 40 percent of women in America who bear children out of wedlock and how he would address that problem.
"His response was to say his profile record [in Congress] answered that," Mrs. Crouse said. "Well, I'm proud of his profile record, but this is not a profile issue but [one] of promoting marriage and the idea that children belong within marriage. So I was not happy with his response."
Neither was longtime CNP member Richard A. Viguerie.
"I don't think he came close to saying something to excite conservatives sitting on the sidelines waiting to hear something that would get them on his team," he said. "Everything he said was rehash of what he has said before."
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."