- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2008

Sen. John McCain today told conservatives to rally around national security and cutting government spending — the issues they share in common — as he sought to unify the Republican Party after Mitt Romney, his chief rival for the presidential nomination, dropped out of the race.

“This election is going to be about big things, not small things. And I intend to fight as hard as I can to ensure that our principles prevail over theirs,” he told his audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“All I ask of any American, conservative, moderate, independent or enlightened Democrat, is to judge my record as a whole and accept that I am not in the habit of making promises to my country that I do not intend to keep,” he said to an audience stacked with supporters.

Still, scattered boos were heard when he was introduced and again when he finished.

The reaction to Mr. Romney, who announced his decision here just hours before Mr. McCain, was very different. His supporters shouted at him to fight to the nominating convention, but he told them the party must unify for the sake of beating Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama, the two Democrats seeking their party’s nomination.

“If this were only about me, I’d go on. But it’s never been about me,” Mr. Romney said. “I entered this race because I love America, and because I love America, in this time of war, I feel I now have to stand aside.”

His decision narrows the field to Mr. McCain, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul.

Mr. Paul is scheduled to speak later today, and Mr. Huckabee is scheduled to address CPAC on Saturday.

Mr. McCain told the conservatives that he understands they disagree on many issues but said he hopes they can rally around their agreements.

Mr. McCain also said he respects his opponents’ stance on immigration — a major area of disagreement among Republicans — but believes his approach is the right one.

He also, however, acknowledged that he has “failed, for various and understandable reasons,” without going into more detail.

He promised to secure the borders and “address other aspects of the problem in a way that defends the rule of law and does not encourage another wave of illegal immigration. He left out his standard stump-speech line that current illegal aliens will be addressed “with compassion” — which was widely viewed as a place holder for his path-to-citizenship program.

Maybe more important to conservatives than Mr. McCain’s words were those of Sen. Tom Coburn, a conservative icon and the man who introduced Mr. McCain.

Mr. Coburn acknowledged there are many problems with Mr. McCain’s record, but said Mr. McCain has evolved on immigration, adding he is assured Mr. McCain “doesn’t have a secret plan to enact blanket amnesty.”

“If he did, he knows I’d kill it,” Mr. Coburn said.

He said Mr. McCain was right on the two major issues facing the country: spending and fighting the war in Iraq and said Mr. McCain made principled stances there.

Mr. McCain has done well with moderate and liberal Republicans and independents in the primaries but has faltered among conservative voters, who have split their votes between Mr. Romney, Mr. Huckabee and, earlier, Fred Thompson.

Some of those conservatives have said they would rather not vote in the presidential election than vote for Mr. McCain.

Speaking just before Mr. McCain, former House Majority Leader Richard Armey told the crowd not to sit out, saying Mr. McCain’s commitment to cutting spending gives them reason to be excited.

“You have to deal with what is there in a responsible fashion, and shape it,” he said. “I have to tell you, John McCain is right to take the lead on earmarks, he has set the party on the right question.”

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