- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

Republicans yesterday showed they remain deeply divided as John McCain’s appeal to several thousand conservative activists failed to bring a desperately needed unity to his party.

The skeptics tried hard to smile on the senator from Arizona as their all-but-certain presidential standard-bearer, but for some it was forced or impossible.

“McCain had an opportunity in this ballroom to speak to the issues conservatives disagree with him on, and he didn’t do it,” former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said after Mr. McCain addressed the 35th annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Mitt Romney suspended his campaign in a speech to the same audience earlier yesterday.

Mr. DeLay, still an icon for many conservatives and Republicans, was among the throng standing on one side of the packed ballroom as Mr. McCain spoke.

“Am I on board for McCain?” Mr. DeLay said afterward. “Not yet.”

The overwhelming sentiment in the Omni Shoreham Hotel ballroom and among the estimated 6,000 federal and state lawmakers, think-tank scholars, interest-group leaders and college students from across the country was for a Republican presidential victory in November. The problem was a missing intensity for the putative candidate.

Daniel A. Cord, an Ohio activist who has attended many CPACs, was wearing a Romney sticker on his suit coat lapel when the former Massachusetts governor formally announced his withdrawal. “I’m taking this off but I’m not putting on a McCain label,” Mr. Cord said. “I’m going to put on one that says, ‘Vote Republican.’ ”

Conservative media consultant Tom Edmonds said, “McCain’s our nominee now and he will beat Hillary Clinton. The Democrats won’t give the nomination to [Senator Barack] Obama because he’s an outsider, but I still don’t like McCain. He’s every Democrat’s favorite Republican.”

Some at the conference said they knew fellow conservatives and even some Republicans who were so angry that they declared they would vote for Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama.

“Yes, I know some Republicans who will vote for anybody but McCain,” said former Georgia state Sen. Robert Lamutt.

Asked what proportion of such apostates were of the Republican electorate, Mr. Lamutt said, “Small, but much, much more than normal.”

Still, Mr. McCain showed outward signs of at least bringing together much of the party establishment.

Just before he spoke, CPAC volunteers hustled to arrange more chairs to one side of the stage for a bevy of Republican notables, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, former Reagan White House political director Frank J. Donatelli, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and former Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma.

Arizona Republican Party Chairman Randy Pullen, a past critic of Mr. McCain, said uniting the party is the task still ahead. He said the senator “started doing it by appealing to the conservative wing of the party in his Super Tuesday victory speech and added to it in his speech here at CPAC. But the party is still headed in the wrong direction and has to get off this earmark merry-go-round we’ve been on.”

On the upside, some McCain skeptics said his ability to attract centrists, independents and disaffected Democrats might offset the lack of intensity on the right. Mr. Cord said, “Yeah, that could be the case. Maybe.”

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