- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008

About 30 percent of conservative activists will stay home or vote for somebody else if Sen. John McCain of Arizona is the Republican presidential nominee, Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said yesterday.

The straw poll of activists at the 35th annual Conservative Political Action Conference showed resistance to Mr. McCain remains strong among conservatives and did not change much with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s suspension of his campaign Thursday.

Before Mr. Romney dropped out, 14 percent said they would not vote, 22 percent said they would vote for someone else and 62 percent said they would back Mr. McCain. After the Romney announcement, 10 percent said they would not vote, 19 percent said they would vote for someone else and 70 percent said they would vote for Mr. McCain.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee struck a defiant note yesterday morning to CPAC’s attendees, saying he will stay in the race as the conservative alternative to Mr. McCain, regardless of how daunting the mathematics of Mr. McCain’s lead in the delegate count.

“I didn’t major in math. I majored in miracles, and I still believe in those, too,” the ordained Baptist minister told his audience in Washington, part of a day of campaigning by him in the D.C. region for Tuesday’s primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District.

“Everywhere there’s still a vote to be cast, I’m still standing,” he told CPAC.

Of the 6,880 activists, scholars, officeholders and college students who attended CPAC, 1,558 filled out the straw poll, most after Mr. Romney told them he would suspend his campaign.

Among those who filled out the straw poll before they knew of the Romney withdrawal, the former Massachusetts governor won 44 percent, compared with 27 percent for Mr. McCain, 12 percent for Mr. Huckabee and 10 percent for Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

But even those who filled out the poll questions afterward still gave Mr. Romney 32 percent of their support, and only 37 percent backed Mr. McCain. Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Paul were both the choice of 12 percent of the later answers.

Issues matter more to Mr. Romney’s backers than Mr. McCain’s, said Mr. Fabrizio, noting that 63 percent of Romney supporters said a presidential candidate’s position on issues mattered most in deciding on whom to vote for, compared with only 42 percent of Mr. McCain’s supporters who said that.

The straw poll results capped the three days of meetings that brought the conservative movement to Washington to reaffirm a commitment to principles over politics — and to hear many of the movement’s stars urge unity behind Mr. McCain to defeat the Democrats in November, whether led by Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On successive days, featured speakers former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and syndicated columnists Robert Novak and George F. Will cited that commitment to principles first. Each gave reasons for supporting Mr. McCain, the probable GOP presidential nominee, despite his former opposition to President Bush’s tax cuts and his support of campaign-finance restrictions, an immigration bill widely derided as amnesty, the proposed Law of the Sea Treaty and a sweeping measure against global warming.

A reason cited often by many speakers was that the next president will almost surely get to name several Supreme Court justices along with hundreds of lower-level federal judges. But Massachusetts Republican state committee member Bob Semonian said Mr. McCain was unreliable on the issue, calling it “important to note [former New Hampshire Sen.] Warren Rudman was McCain’s national campaign chairman in 2000 and the chief sponsor for David Souter’s appointment to the Supreme Court.”

Mr. Gingrich, who spoke yesterday to a packed CPAC ballroom audience at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, said it is time for the conservative movement to separate itself from the Republican Party.

But he went on to explain that means starting in 2010 to recruit and elect “true” conservatives at the local and state levels. This year, Mr. Gingrich said, conservative activists should work for the election of Mr. McCain.

David A. Keene of the American Conservative Union, the lead CPAC sponsor, tried relentlessly to balance the commitment to principles over politics and the practical needs of conservatives to work within the Republican Party rather than wander into the wilderness of independent-party politics.

Though Mr. McCain earned boos from some in the CPAC audience during his Thursday address, Mr. Keene said he thought the reception Mr. McCain received showed that conservatives were willing to work with him in moving him toward their views and policies.

Larry Eastland, a Santa Monica, Calif., businessman who was once chairman of the Republican Party in Connecticut and later in Idaho, said, “McCain is aware that the conservative movement will hold him to a standard that he has not yet lived up to.”

Mr. Semonian added that the “only way McCain can unify the party is if he picks Mitt Romney as his running mate, because Romney has the expertise in economics and markets that McCain doesn’t,”

A potential source of disunity is Mr. Huckabee’s decision to stay in the race. Saying he is out to win the nomination, Mr. Huckabee is trying to enhance his delegate count going into the Sept. 1-4 Republican National Convention by challenging Mr. McCain for conservative voters in the more than 20 states that have not held Republican presidential nominating contests yet.

Mr. Huckabee, speaking yesterday in the 1,600-seat ballroom that was only about two-thirds full, did not utter an unkind word about Mr. McCain, let alone attack him on issues or actions.

Still, when Mr. Huckabee raised the possibility of quitting, the small-but-enthusiastic crowd shouted back at him not to do it. They needn’t have worried.

“Am I quitting? Well, let’s get that settled right now. No, I am not,” he said. “It’s better to be right and even not to win, than it is to be wrong.”

Later, he told reporters he is helping Mr. McCain and the party by remaining in the race.

“Competition breeds excellence, and the lack of competition breeds mediocrity,” he said.

Huckabee campaign adviser Jim Pinkerton said the former Arkansas governor will run a dignified, honorable campaign that will draw distinctions between himself and Mr. McCain on issues such as marriage, abortion, guns, taxes and the Law of the Seas treaty.

“Immigration, complete [the border] fence by a day certain, build a wall. Those are key differences on issues,” Mr. Pinkerton said. “He will be the most authentic conservative in the race.”

Asked if he would play the role that Pat Buchanan did in challenging President George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination in 1992, Mr. Pinkerton said, “No, he will play Ronald Reagan to Gerald Ford in 1976. That would be a better way to put it.”

Mr. Reagan went all the way to the Republican convention against Mr. Ford, who went on to lose in November to Jimmy Carter. Mr. Reagan became the conservative standard-bearer and presumptive Republican nominee throughout the presidency of Mr. Carter, whom he then toppled in the 1980 election.

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