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.
Politically, McCain-Kennedy was a near-death experience for McCain, who observed to an aide that he had never seen an issue of such intensity.
"He saw that his approach on immigration was out of alignment with what voters wanted," recalled Mark McKinnon, an unpaid adviser to the campaign. "He realized that there was no way to get that reform he wanted without first addressing questions about the border, that the voters were insisting on that. He learned. He's tuned in. He got gunpowder blasts from the last time, and that isn't going to happen again.
"What he is doing now isn't abandoning any position. It's just a re-sequencing of things. You have to take care of the border first, he is saying."
In 2000, McCain dug in his heels during the South Carolina primary on issues including religious intolerance to campaign finance reform, and lost to George W. Bush. "He learned from defeat, as everybody learns," McKinnon said.
Eight years later, the candidate has become not only more conciliatory but also more accommodating. Inflexible positions have become malleable, especially on immigration, motivated by McCain's hope to make peace with conservative antagonists.
"Here's a guy who wants to be president," a former aide said. "His position on immigration had been a huge gale-force wind blowing in his face. He'd also faced the prospect of returning to the Senate badly weakened. He didn't look forward to any of that. He had to do what he's done. . . .
"He's finessed immigration probably as well as he can. [Bush] could bust it open again on him if he pushed on the issue, but that probably won't happen. So I think he'll be okay with most voters."
But problems persist for McCain, a reminder of which awaited him in Atlanta, at his last rally on Saturday afternoon. A bespectacled man, with his arms folded, listened quietly as a grinning McCain said, "We just came from California, where we got the endorsement of the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger."
Some spectators chuckled and applauded. Steve Bray's arms did not move from his chest; he was not at all enthralled by McCain boasting of an endorsement from yet another Republican moderate.
A self-described Christian conservative and the Republican Party chairman for Newton County in Georgia, Bray has doubts about McCain's conservative bona fides.
"I'm supposed to be neutral in this race, but I feel I have an obligation to express my concern about him," he said. "I can go down the list for anybody. He got McCain-Feingold and campaign financing, and that abridges freedom of speech. . . . He has his amnesty vision for the illegals, the McCain-Kennedy Amnesty Act. He obfuscates; he refuses to give a clear answer on what he wants to see happen to his bill. He talks now about 'securing our borders.' But what's next -- the pathway to citizenship?
"We need the rule of law here, not just in Iraq. . . . I just don't fully trust him. He insulted evangelical Christians last time when he said this is not the party of Bob Jones. . . . He wraps himself in the cloak of Reagan. But I wonder what is under that cloak."
Despite his anger, Bray says he will support McCain if he is nominated. But he cautioned that many fellow Republicans in Newton County might simply stay home on Election Day.
"I may have to end up working for him," Bray said. "Still, I'm more comfortable with Huckabee. I certainly want to see him at least be the vice presidential candidate. . . . This doubt about [McCain] isn't going away."
Not everyone in the party is convinced that McCain's tensions with conservatives will harm him should he reach the general election. Some of his high-profile supporters think he might actually enjoy his own version of a Sister Souljah moment: that, in refusing to be cowed by a key party constituency, he might better attract independents and conservative-to-moderate Democrats.
The former aide to McCain acknowledged the high stakes of Thursday's CPAC speech, noting it invites the possibility of a reconciliation of sorts between the candidate and his skeptics. But he cautioned against McCain trying too hard to win over old adversaries. "It would be harmful for the campaign to cozy up to a lot of conservative leaders and movements," he said. "It wouldn't look . . . authentic for McCain."
Authenticity, he added, is at the heart of McCain's appeal: Lose it, and he might lose everything. CPAC will be a tricky dance for the man who bills himself, audaciously, as "the true conservative."