From the Right, Both Acceptance and Distrust of McCain

By Michael Leahy and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 7, 2008

NASHVILLE -- Ronald Reagan has found a regular place in Sen. John McCain's stump speech, part of the Republican presidential candidate's effort to assert his conservative credentials and assure listeners that he has been a longtime "foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution."

Tre Everson, a local funeral director, listened carefully last weekend as McCain (Ariz.) appeared to be channeling Reagan in a campaign appearance here aimed at assuaging the worries of conservatives. McCain said he wants only judges who will "stand up for the strict construction of the Constitution," and repeated that he is "a proud social conservative . . . the true conservative."

Everson comes from that part of the Republican electorate congenitally suspicious of McCain -- passionate conservatives who view him as a closet moderate on fiscal and social matters, and want nothing to do with the Republican front-runner. But McCain has succeeded in easing Everson's worries about his controversial stance on immigration, which offered the prospect of citizenship to illegal immigrants, by stressing that he would "secure the borders first."

"I guess that's enough for me . . . but it isn't enough for some of my friends," said Everson, who regards himself as a McCain supporter. "People keep criticizing him, you know, on the radio and in the media. I just think it's that they know he's probably going to be the man, the nominee. Some conservatives are obviously bothered."

That was underscored by the results of Tuesday's primaries. They moved McCain closer to attaining his goal of winning the Republican nomination but also demonstrated his difficulty in closing the deal with conservatives in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and West Virginia and Arkansas -- all states he lost to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

The discontent among conservatives presents a threat to McCain's attempt to unify his party for the general election. He will try to quell that revolt Thursday with a high-profile speech in the District before the influential Conservative Political Action Conference.

"I want to make the point that a lot of conservatives are coming home to McCain," says former senator Phil Gramm (Tex.), a McCain supporter. "But some aren't. Some just don't seem to understand that if they don't do this, it's going to hurt the party for a long time. They say they have principles, but some of it is their ego and power, too. They're well-known, and they're used to having power."

The conservative firestorm has been fueled by radio talk-show hosts and pundits upset that McCain's campaign, left for dead after money problems and a staff upheaval, unexpectedly resurrected itself in New Hampshire, and he became the leader after wins in South Carolina and Florida. Largely ignored by critics until his comeback, McCain became the target of a vocal band of influential conservative commentators distraught over the possibility of his nomination.

Rush Limbaugh declared that a McCain triumph would "destroy the party." James Dobson, leader of Focus on the Family, said that he will not vote for McCain under any circumstances. Ann Coulter allowed as to how she would rather vote for Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton than for McCain.

Former and current Republican congressional colleagues joined in the attacks. Former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert cited what he termed McCain's lack of party loyalty by labeling him an "undependable vote," and Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.) raised questions about his temperament for the Oval Office.

The incoming conservative fire against McCain has become a distraction, Gramm acknowledges. "Some people, in their own minds, think they have exerted a strong influence over the party, and now they are seeing that influence passing," he said. "There's some bitterness on their part. They're people who put their dogma in front of the interests of the country. . . . They don't like it that McCain is McCain."

No issue has been more critical for McCain to address, and finesse, than his stance on immigration reform. The bill that he co-authored with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), which included a proposal to grant illegal immigrants citizenship after they paid a fine and met several other conditions, sparked an outrage among Republicans that he had never seen coming, aides said. His poll numbers plummeted. Critics dubbed him Amnesty John.

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