We’re waiting, Sen. McCain

Those who hoped, feared or believed Arizona Sen. John McCain’s (R) problems with conservative activists and voters would vanish with front-runner status are coming to the stark realization that McCain has bridge-building and fence-mending to do. The GOP presidential nominee will need conservatives for their enthusiasm and volunteerism this summer and for votes in November.

Fortunately, as his speech at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week demonstrated, McCain sounded like he has come to that realization himself and seems willing to do something about it. Gone was the imperiousness of those of his advisers who have in the past either dismissed conservative queasiness about McCain as irrelevant or argued that since conservatives “have no choice,” they ought to shut up and get on the McCain bandwagon.

McCain himself over the course of the last year or so has suggested that his problem is not with conservative voters, but with “inside-the-Beltway, self-appointed” conservative leaders who speak for no one but themselves. That notion has been undermined by the fact that in primary after primary, McCain has had difficulty winning support from self-identified conservative Republican voters — even in his native Arizona.

This weekend even President Bush, while praising McCain, warned him that he has some work to do if he is going to solidify his base support among conservatives before taking on the eventual Democratic nominee. The president hasn’t always pleased conservatives, but has accepted their disagreements with him and made certain at every step of the way that he considers them and their support important.

 During the course of the CPAC event, some 1,500 attendees filled out a straw poll that asked, among other things, whether respondents would vote for McCain if he is the party nominee, sit out the election or vote for “someone else.”

Something like 10 percent of those responding said they wouldn’t vote, and another 20 percent indicated that they would like to vote for “someone else.”

There was, however, more than a little good news for McCain in these results. Ballots filled out after Romney’s withdrawal were 10 percent more likely to vote for McCain, with very few CPAC attendees moving in protest to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee or Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), his two remaining primary opponents. This would seem to indicate that under the right circumstances, McCain may be able to capture conservatives and Romney supporters, but it also indicates that the base isn’t ready to support the Republican front-runner yet.

Following former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s withdrawal, several of McCain’s harshest critics, along with a number of conservative icons, addressed the CPAC attendees, urging them to think about the alternatives before deciding to join the “bitter-enders” like Ann Coulter or those who might just decide to sit this election out. Their number included former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and columnist George Will, who by his own admission has probably written more columns critical of McCain than anyone else on Earth.

They make a strong case based on their fear of the policy consequences of a liberal victory and on their belief that on a number of major issues, McCain and even those conservatives who have been most critical of him share common interests — that on truly crucial questions as diverse as the make-up of the Supreme Court and the war on terror, conservatives would be far happier if McCain wins in November. Their case is a strong one, but is one that must ultimately be made by John McCain himself over the next few months.

What McCain has to do is reassure conservatives who still distrust him. He has to convince them not that they “owe” him their allegiance and enthusiasm, but that he deserves their support because he and they are involved in a common enterprise that must succeed. McCain staffers have in the past attacked the motives of their boss’s conservative critics and are even now privately and publicly demanding that conservatives throw in with McCain out of a sense of the very “party loyalty” he has spent a lifetime disparaging. These folks need to be told to come up with new and more convincing arguments.

McCain’s first steps have won him the attention of most conservatives, including some of his harshest critics. However, to seal the deal with these folks, he needs to combine his “straight” talk with real action. It will take a few more steps to convince them they should clamber aboard the McCain bandwagon.

They are waiting for those steps.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.