Empty, Open Arms

The Post's Mike Shear reports from Houston on former Secretary of State James Baker's endorsement of Sen. John McCain and how the Republican contender's campaign is beginning to focus on a possible national match up with Sen. Barack Obama.Video by Chet Rhodes/washingtonpost.com
By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008

Chris Pohl came to the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington to peddle hats.

As political gimmicks go, his was rather ingenious: a Russian ushanka, complete with fake-fur ear flaps, stamped with the red Communist hammer and sickle and adorned with interchangeable name tags -- Hillary '08 or Obama '08. Twenty-five bucks.

In the hallways, he handed out red business cards that listed his name only as "Karl" (as in Marx) and set up a booth at which bottles of red-colored lemonade ("Leninade") were dispensed next to a life-size cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton herself. Pohl was far down the road of cleverness and -- he hoped -- economic salvation. "I'm a subprime casualty," said Pohl, who lost his job at a mortgage company in November. "So now I'm selling hats."

"Karl" was certainly in the right place to unveil his ushanka: CPAC is the preeminent yearly gathering of conservative activists. Here, they embraced the message of his hats, that electing either Clinton or Barack Obama president would be like installing Vladimir Lenin in the White House. High-fives and chuckles everywhere.

But it occurred to Pohl, in this uneasy way, that the hat was really a general-election prop, and conservatives are not yet ready to start the general election. Their own party's presumptive nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, is not their kind. Many don't like him, don't trust him, hate that he is so cozy with the media, and worry that, once elected, he'll huddle and compromise with Democrats and give away their store. Too much Straight Talk and not enough street fighter.

"That's why my hat's a little ahead of its time," Pohl lamented.

In the nearly three weeks since McCain himself was both booed and cheered at CPAC, his surrogates and operatives have been making calls and strategic visits, trying to quell the unhappy roar within the GOP's base. But nothing has worked. In a strange, dumb-luck kind of way, the McCain campaign thought it had gotten a break no one would ever wish for: a New York Times story that raised the possibility of an affair between the senator and an attractive lobbyist drew an immediate backlash from conservatives, who rallied to McCain's side. But that temporary defense was little more than a respite for the most ardent ideological warriors.

"This assumption that people who defended him are now on board is naive," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, a CPAC co-sponsor. "I think he's got a ways to go. If he really wants an enthusiastic base in the fall, he is going to have to do more than sit there and hope that it comes to him."

Keene was one of those on the receiving end of a McCain adviser's recent phone call. The pitch, as Keene described it: Republican loyalty demands that all wings of the party come together in the interest of retaining the White House. Unconvincing, Keene said.

"Part of the problem he has on the right is directly traceable to the attitudes he has expressed over the years toward conservatives, which has led to a queasy feeling on their part," Keene continued. "I have seen no real evidence of an attempt to find out what the real differences are and try to bridge the gap. I think they have some appreciation of the problem, but I don't know if they have a commitment to do anything about it."

McCain strategist Charlie Black pointed to recent national polls that show his candidate, on average, getting 85 percent of the Republican vote against either prospective Democratic nominee. "We don't have a huge problem at the voter level," noted Black. "It only matters what happens in November, and McCain is popular with Republican rank-and-file voters."

As conservatives see it, here's the problem right now: In 24 primaries and caucuses, McCain never once carried voters who identified themselves as "very conservative," according to exit polls. And in a majority of the Republican nominating contests, those voters represented a third or more of the total voter turnout. Similarly, the exit polls show, McCain fared poorly with Republican voters who said the most important quality in a candidate is someone who "shares my values."

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