Friday, March 7, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Sen. John McCain, in his post-victory debut before the conservative movement’s top donors and leaders, will address the Council for National Policy’s annual winter meeting here today.

His remarks at the event, which has always been closed to the public and will have only a partial accommodation of the press this year for the first time, could turn out to be his make-or-break pitch for support from some of the right’s most influential critics of his past positions and policies.

“This is the most distinguished collection of conservative leaders and donors, and he was anxious to appear as part of his ongoing effort to consolidate support for his candidacy within the conservative movement,” said Charlie Black, Mr. McCain’s campaign adviser.

“Many conservative leaders did not support him, but he is a proud conservative Republican who thinks he can earn their support in the general election,” Mr. Black added.

The Arizona senator has accumulated enough delegates to secure his nomination as the party’s standard bearer at the Sept. 1-4 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.

But on issues ranging from amnesty for illegal immigrants to campaign finance restrictions on political advertisements, conservatives at CNP and elsewhere have long been critical of Mr. McCain.

“It is the first time he has accepted an invitation to address CNP, and we learned of it fairly late. We were delighted,” a CNP official said privately.

Mr. Black said the campaign decided two weeks ago to attend and Mr. McCain plans to make unscripted remarks, without notes, for about 10 minutes before taking questions from the audience.

Mr. McCain and his advisers, several of whom are CNP members, have admitted he has much work to do to secure and excite the Republican Party’s conservative base. Prominent figures on the right agree.

“McCain should contrast his approach to Supreme Court appointments with that of Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told The Washington Times.

The depth of disaffection from Mr. McCain among prominent members of CNP is so strong that some are already questioning the group’s bona fides.

“It will say more about the state of the conservative movement than it does McCain,” a veteran CNP member said. “If he is accepted at CNP, this will mark the official end of the conservative movement as we knew it.”

CNP does not publicize its meetings, speakers or agenda, but the McCain campaign informed the press of his agreement to address the council. As a result, reporters following the McCain campaign deluged the council with requests for coverage.

“We agreed the press could sit in a separate room and listen to the speech and the questions and answers,” a CNP official said, speaking anonymously because the rules of the council forbid officials or members to speak by name in public.

The council’s top official is Becky Norton Dunlop, who is also a vice president at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

CNP was the venue of choice for former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson to make his debut as a presidential primary candidate last summer at a CNP meeting in Washington, when he was the featured banquet speaker. At the next CNP meeting in Salt Lake City, several religious conservative leaders met in a rump session and agreed to prepare to back a third-party presidential candidacy.

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