- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

Sen. John McCain might more or less wrap up the Republican presidential nomination tomorrow on Super Tuesday but will come up short in November’s general election if he does not quickly convince skeptical conservatives that henceforth he will walk with them, some key Republicans say.

Many on the right see him, at 71, as an aging centrist, and argue that every time the Republican Party has nominated a moderate, the Democrats have won the White House as aggrieved conservatives exercised their right not to vote, as they did in 1976, 1992 and 1996.

One way to try to address reservations about the Arizona senator’s age and commitment to low taxes and limited government would be to name a young and credentialed conservative as vice presidential running mate.

“McCain needs to pick a man of the right, and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford would be the best, at many levels,” said economic conservative Pat Toomey, president of the influential Club for Growth and former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania.

Former Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Pauken, popular with religious conservatives, also thinks Mr. Sanford is the “logical choice.”

For some McCain antagonists, no hoop is high enough for the Arizona senator to jump through.

“What can McCain do to win over conservatives?” says English First Executive Director Jim Boulet Jr. “His long record of beating up his fellow Republicans to the applause of the media makes that almost impossible.”

Mr. Pauken said he is troubled by Mr. McCain’s determination to keep a permanent military presence in the Middle East and possibly extending the war in that region by bombing Iran.

“I will not be voting for John this time in the primary,” he said.

So far, Mr. McCain has been seen as needing to be more of a party uniter than divider.

“There are few things that would better achieve that result than a conservative nominee coming on board his ticket,” said longtime conservative activist and fundraiser Richard A. Viguerie. “McCain would have to name someone whom movement conservatives recognize as one of their own.”

Whom Mr. McCain sees as a real conservative may not be good enough. He repeatedly has boasted of former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, considered by many as an amiable centrist, as a conservative endorser. That only brought eye-rolling disbelief from knowledgeable conservatives, whose typical response is that Mr. McCain “just doesn’t get it.”

Meanwhile, the name the press and liberal pundits most often mention is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who some on the right regard as skating on the thin ice of Christian socialism.

Skeptics say a McCain- Huckabee ticket would be a disaster — given Mr. McCain’s acknowledged ignorance of economics and Mr. Huckabee’s demonstrated ignorance of Middle Eastern geography and politics.

“Huckabee will be bad for McCain,” said David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “Huckabee is a religious populist, not a conservative.”

Mr. Keene also notes how surprisingly small the field is of real-deal conservatives who are not too old, but old enough and experienced enough, to take over, should something happen to a President McCain. Mr. Viguerie agrees.

“The only thing that will unite conservatives is a good — make that very good — V.P. choice,” says former Republican National Committee General Counsel David Norcross.

Mr. Norcross’s No. 1 one pick for Mr. McCain’s No. 2 is Haley Barbour, the twice-elected Mississippi governor.

“Haley knows and understands the party,” Mr. Norcross said. “He is the essence of a party man, has won bipartisan praise for his leadership in the wake of the [Hurricane] Katrina catastrophe at a time when the Republican-led federal government responded in a way that still brings the word “incompetence” to the lips of many Republicans.

Many Republicans say of Mr. Barbour that he offers the additional advantage of being a reliable and effective campaigner who manages not to step on his own tongue.

Whether he’s the real deal as a conservative is a matter of some disagreement. Former Reagan National Security Adviser Richard V. Allen, a McCain supporter has doubts about Mr. Barbour and a few reservations about Mr. Huckabee. He joins the chorus of Mr. Sanford advocates, in part because he is someone “who can actually serve in the Oval Office and, in the meantime, be a strong McCain supporter.”

Morton Blackwell, a Republican National Committeeman from Virginia, won’t speculate now on a McCain running mate. He thinks that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Mr. Cain’s more conservative chief rival, will eventually win the nomination and be the party’s candidate in November.

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