- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

Sen. John McCain yesterday told conservatives to overcome past disagreements and trust him to carry their banner on national security and cutting spending, as he sought to unify the Republican Party just hours after Mitt Romney dropped his bid for the party’s presidential nomination.

  • Photos:Romney, McCain at CPAC

  • “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 the Conservative Political Action Conference as he trained his sights on his eventual Democratic opponent.

    With his path to the Republican nomination virtually clear, Mr. McCain hopes that the prospect of a President Hillary Rodham Clinton or President Barack Obama — the two Democrats fighting for their party’s nomination — is enough to push reluctant conservatives into embracing him. He told the audience that he cannot win November’s election without conservatives’ support.

    But the healing will be hard — as he found out when some in the audience booed amid the cheers when he was introduced, booed when he talked about his fight against his party on immigration and booed when he finished.

    The reaction to Mr. Romney, who announced his decision to CPAC earlier in the day, was very different. His supporters shouted to him to fight on and booed the mention of Mr. McCain’s name. Mr. Romney, though, said the party must unify for the sake of beating Democrats in November.

    “If this were only about me, I’d go on. But it’s never been about me,” he 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.”

    He was also bowing to mathematics. Mr. McCain’s lead in delegates to September’s nominating convention is nearly insurmountable, given the slate of states that have already voted.

    Mr. Romney’s decision narrows the field to Mr. McCain, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

    Mr. Huckabee yesterday said he is fighting on. He is scheduled to speak to CPAC on Saturday and his campaign scored a big coup last night with the endorsement of James Dobson.

    Mr. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and one of the nation’s most prominent evangelical Christians, talked to Mr. Huckabee yesterday and last night released a statement saying that Mr. Romney’s suspension of his campaign means there is only one acceptable candidate left. Earlier this week, Mr. Dobson had ruled out voting for Mr. McCain even in a general election, citing the senator’s stances on abortion and homosexuality, and his personal temperament.

    Mr. Paul, who spoke to the conference after Mr. McCain, said conservatives should be worried that Mr. McCain has teamed up with Democrats to succeed in passing campaign-finance rules, trying to pass an immigration bill and trying to block President Bush’s tax cuts.

    “Now, our leading candidate — guess whose position he holds on global warming? Al Gore. He supports the Al Gore bill,” Mr. Paul said.

    Even as he has feuded with many grass-roots conservatives, Mr. McCain has built up a base of support among their leaders, including tax-cutters such as 1996 Republican vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp and spending-cuts icon Sen. Tom Coburn.

    The bandwagon grew yesterday with two Republican senators who have feuded with Mr. McCain on the key issues of immigration and campaign finance both announcing that they were now endorsing him.

    Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican at whom Mr. McCain hurled expletives in a closed-door meeting on immigration last year, said Mr. McCain would make the best wartime leader, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who fought Mr. McCain’s campaign-finance law all the way to the Supreme Court, said he was proud that a senator would likely be the nominee.

    On immigration, Mr. McCain told CPAC that he respected his opponents’ stance, even as he told them that he still believes his approach was right. He said he “failed, for various and understandable reasons,” though he didn’t say what those reasons are.

    Going forward, he said he would 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.

    Mr. Coburn, the Oklahoma senator who endorsed Mr. McCain last month and introduced him to CPAC yesterday, said there were many problems with Mr. McCain’s record but said Mr. McCain has evolved on immigration, adding that 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 the war in Iraq — and said Mr. McCain’s principled stances there are reason to support him.

    Still, some conservatives have said they will refuse to vote for Mr. McCain. Missing yesterday among others at CPAC was a sense of enthusiasm about their choice in the general election.

    “I agree with Karl Rove that McCain has the best chance in November but in order to do what?” said Daniel A. Cord, an Ohio activist. “To prosecute the war in Iran successfully? I’ve watched Republican governors — through taxes, spending and corruption — destroy the Republican Party in Ohio over 16 years, and that’s shown me that just winning is not worth it. It has to be for a good reason.”

    Speaking just before Mr. McCain, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey told the crowd not to sit out, saying Mr. McCain’s commitment to cutting spending should even make them 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.”

    S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

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