Spanning the U.S. to Bridge a Rift

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 9, 2008

WICHITA, Feb. 8 -- With his top rival out of the race, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) sought to rally conservatives to his candidacy Friday on a cross-country campaign trip that included stops in Virginia, Kansas and Washington state.

A day after former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney abandoned his bid for the GOP nomination, McCain told a crowd in Wichita that while "primaries are tough . . . we also understand once the dust settles, we come together, because we all know what will happen to America if the wrong party wins in November."

Promising that he would engage in "a spirited debate" with whomever the Democrats nominate, the senator promised to adhere to his party's values. "I am proud to carry the banner of a conservative Republican, with a record of conservative voting," he said.

McCain also said that he plans to meet with Romney, whom he fought openly with during the campaign, so they can work on "uniting the party and move on to victory in November."

While the senator tried to appeal to conservatives on the stump, his top advisers were trying to set up meetings with some of the nation's more influential evangelical ministers, including Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life," and Joel Osteen, to find common ground. The effort has been spearheaded by Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), who endorsed McCain after dropping his own presidential bid in November.

When asked about that effort, McCain said, "I'll be glad and willing to meet with anyone who wants to meet with me." He added that there is no formalized strategy to reach out to religious leaders.

McCain has diverged from conservatives on several issues, including campaign finance legislation, immigration policy and President Bush's tax cuts. McCain has consistently voted against abortion but has argued against a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the grounds that it is a state issue.

"Those are the portal issues -- you've got to be right on life and marriage," Brownback said. "This is a very raw and open wound, and everything's not resolved yet."

Brownback tried to help start healing the wound Friday before a couple of hundred fellow Kansans in an airport hangar in Wichita, rattling off a list of McCain's conservative bona fides.

"He's got a 24-year pro-life record. He was voting pro-life before it was cool, and I admire that," Brownback said, adding that not only does McCain support gun rights but "by my count he's shot more guns than anyone else in the field. Bigger ones too, probably."

Brownback ended his speech by warning the crowd that if conservatives sit out the election, they risk losing their advantage on the Supreme Court. "There are six good reasons to vote for John McCain," he said. "They all sit on the Supreme Court and they're all over 70 years of age."

The GOP front-runner reciprocated the goodwill, practically promising Brownback a high-ranking position in his administration after he leaves the Senate because of a self-imposed term limit. "I'll be proud to have him by my side in any capacity as president of the United States of America," McCain said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company