- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2008

Sen. John McCain couldn’t win a majority of conservative voters in Arizona on Super Tuesday, exposing the deep rift that he faces today when he speaks to the major annual gathering of conservative activists here in the District.

Photos:Super Tuesday

The Conservative Political Action Conference is taking on the significance of a State of the Union address for Mr. McCain and his chief Republican presidential rivals, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who are also scheduled to speak. Each is seeking to corral the backing of the conservatives who serve as the backbone of their party.

Mr. McCain yesterday asked conservatives to “calm down a bit” and said he will use today’s speech to tell them that they have the same goals on issues such as national security.

“We all share common principles, common conservative principles, and we should coalesce around those issues in which we are in agreement, and I hope respectfully disagree on the few specifics that there is disagreement on,” Mr. McCain told reporters in Arizona.

It’s the same tactic that former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani used with the CPAC gathering last year, when he told them, “My 80 percent ally is not my 20 percent enemy.”

Mr. Giuliani dropped out of the race and endorsed Mr. McCain last week, having failed to win a single state.

Mr. McCain has quite a bit of ground to make up with conservatives. He spent more than a decade fighting with his party’s base on campaign-finance laws, he voted against President Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, and he worked with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Mr. Bush to try to legalize most illegal aliens.

Despite winning several large states in Tuesday’s Republican contests — including his home state of Arizona — he had poor showings among conservatives in the 21 primaries and caucuses, as well as in earlier contests.

Mr. McCain even lost conservatives in Arizona, winning only 36 percent to Mr. Romney’s 47 percent, according to MSNBC’s exit polls.

Of the 19 states for which exit polls have been conducted and released this year, Mr. McCain won self-identified conservatives only in Connecticut. Mr. Romney won the conservative vote in 11 states and Mr. Huckabee won in seven states.

Knowing his challenge, Mr. McCain announced new television commercials to run in Virginia, Maryland and the District through Tuesday’s primaries here in which he argues that he is “a proud social conservative who will never waver.”

Among self-identified Republicans of all leanings, Mr. McCain has fared somewhat better nationwide, winning six states and tying in a seventh with Mr. Romney. Mr. Romney won the Republican vote in seven states, while Mr. Huckabee won in five states.

Mr. Huckabee’s campaign manager, Chip Saltsman, said their performance is all the more impressive given the smaller number of states where they have competed.

“In states he was able to get into, and places that even just got to know him a little bit, he did very well,” Mr. Saltsman said.

Mr. Huckabee doesn’t speak to CPAC until Saturday, but Mr. Saltsman said they view it as a natural audience.

“It’s an opportunity to talk about Governor Huckabee’s lifelong conservative positions that he’s not only lived but done as governor of Arkansas,” he said. “It’s obviously a good crowd for us, and as you look at the remaining folks in the race, you’re looking at the one guy that’s been a conservative all his life.”

Mr. Romney and Mr. McCain both speak to CPAC today; and for Mr. McCain, who refused to speak to CPAC last year, conservatives said it will take more than today’s speech to bridge the gap.

“It isn’t that he has to come and make some great speech and ‘prodigal son returns, all is forgiven, kill the fatted calf,” ” said Cleta Mitchell, a board member of the American Conservative Union. “That’s not what this is about. It’s a whole litany of issues and values that go back a number of years.”

“He’s got to deal with some principles and issues — that’s what people are upset about. I don’t need any more friends, I don’t need any more dinner partners,” she said.

She said she wants Mr. McCain to acknowledge that he was wrong on some issues, such as opposing Mr. Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

“It’s not in his nature to do that,” said Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican and one of Mr. McCain’s conservative supporters. Still, he said Mr. McCain “has got his work cut out for him” to reach out.

“I believe that at his core, John is a conservative, and he gained this reputation as a maverick that gets somewhat embellished by the media and some of his critics,” Mr. Thune said. “But if you look at his record on the issues that cultural, social conservatives care about, he’s had a consistent record over a period of time.”

He said one issue that Mr. McCain should stress today is his pledge to appoint conservative judges to the courts, and to point to his record as a spending hawk, which has helped him win over other conservative icons, such as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who will introduce Mr. McCain today.

Mr. McCain’s war with conservatives at home is so bad that Rob Haney, chairman of the 11th Legislative District Republican Party in McCain’s political back yard, said he would stay home rather than vote for Mr. McCain or his Democratic opponent in November.

“I will be going with what a lot of conservatives will be doing, which is not voting for either,” he said.

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