McCain Tries to Woo Conservatives

Many conservatives aren't convinced John McCain deserves the GOP presidential nomination. The newly minted front-runner tried to improve the strained relationship with his critics at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington on Thursday.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

Senator John McCain can reasonable call himself the presumptive Republican nominee now that rival Mitt Romney has folded his campaign.

Former Governor MITT ROMNEY (Republican presidential candidate): Now, if I fight on in my campaign all the way to the convention…

(Soundbite of cheers)

…I want you to know I've given this a lot of thought - I forestall the launch of a national campaign. And frankly, I'd be making it easier for Senator Clinton or Obama to win.

MONTAGNE: Mitt Romney speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington D.C. A few hours later, John McCain addressed the same forum and tried to improve his strained relations with his party's conservative base.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: CPAC represents the kind of Republican conservatives who not only distrust and even loathe John McCain, but also believe he has nothing but contempt for them. So yesterday it was important that McCain show respect. He told them he had a responsibility to unite the party.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): And I am acutely aware that I cannot succeed in that endeavor, nor can our party prevail over the challenge we will face from either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, without the support of dedicated conservatives whose convictions, creativity and energy have been indispensable to the success of our party.

LIASSON: McCain argued that he and conservatives agree more than they disagree. He pointed to his opposition to abortion, his desire to appoint conservative judges. Above all, he said, he intends to win the war in Iraq.

Senator MCCAIN: There's no other candidate for this office who appreciates more than I do just how awful war is. But I know that the costs in lives and treasure we would incur should we fail in Iraq, will be far greater than the heartbreaking losses we have suffered to date. And I will not allow that to happen.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: But he didn't gloss over all those issues where conservatives believe he has been a heretic or worse.

Senator MCCAIN: I've held other positions that have not met with widespread agreement from conservatives. I won't pretend otherwise, nor would you permit me to forget it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

On the issue of illegal immigration…

(Soundbite of booing)

…a position which…

(Soundbite of booing)

LIASSON: McCain hasn't changed his position on providing illegal aliens a pathway to citizenship, but he now has a new approach - secure the border first.

Outside the ballroom where McCain spoke, Ryan Hayden of Magnolia, Texas says every four years he gives money and time to help Republicans win the White House. But this year with McCain as the nominee…

Mr. RYAN HAYDEN (Resident, Magnolia, Texas): I will do neither of those. I mean, I'm a conservative first and I'm a Republican second. I'm not going to throw my principles out the window for the sake of party unity. I will not vote for John McCain.

LIASSON: Even if it means electing President Hillary Clinton?

Mr. HAYDEN: You know what? Parties lose elections sometimes, and sometimes it's good to lose elections. I can wait four years to get a real conservative leader.

LIASSON: Opie Ditch is a retired veteran. He's trying to get used to the idea of McCain as the standard bearer.

Mr. OPIE DITCH (Retired veteran, Republican): Now that he's the nominee, you know, there's probably going to be some soul-searching. I'm not ready to jump on the bandwagon. I don't know what I'm going to do.

LIASSON: Like many others here, Ditch has a long list of problems with McCain.

Mr. DITCH: The biggest, I guess, was him teaming up with Kerry. That's a shocker.

LIASSON: In 2004, McCain said he entertained the idea of becoming John Kerry's running mate, the ultimate betrayal to conservatives like Ditch. But activist Prinscella Smith thinks when it comes to John McCain, conservatives should just get over it.

Ms. PRINSCELLA SMITH (Activist, Republican): What we need to do is get behind the obvious best choice. It's either going to be McCain or it's going to be Clinton or it's going to be Obama. And let's take the positives of what he has. Let's not tear down our party. Let's not make our grassroots people stay home, because that's what they will do.

LIASSON: Yesterday, McCain promised - humbly - that he would continue to reach out to conservatives.

Senator MCCAIN: For all my reputation as a maverick, I have only found true happiness in serving a cause greater than my self-interests. For me, that cause has always been our country. I have been her imperfect servant for many years, and I've made many mistakes. You can attest to that, but need not. But need not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But I love her deeply and I will never, never tire of the honor of serving her. I cannot do that without your counsel and support. And I am grateful, very grateful, that you have given me this opportunity to ask for it.

LIASSON: McCain needs more from conservatives than their grudging support. This year more than ever, the Republican nominee will need a fired up and energetic base to counter the Democrats big edge in enthusiasm.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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