PHOENIX — John McCain, poised to capture the presidential nomination of the party of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, will renew his effort to convince wary conservatives that he's a worthy heir to those icons.
The Arizona senator's first campaign stop after his Super Tuesday success will be the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, an annual meeting of the disparate wings of American conservatism. McCain skipped the meeting last year in what some activists called a snub.
McCain will deliver a high-profile speech there Thursday, one he hopes will help overcome the mutual distrust that for years has plagued his relationship with many conservatives. The problems stem from McCain's efforts on campaign-finance reform, climate change and immigration; his votes against President Bush's tax cuts; and his personal affronts, such as calling some social conservative leaders "agents of intolerance."
Though such "maverick" stances made McCain a darling of the media and independent voters, it's a simple fact that a general-election victory without the enthusiasm of the Republican Party's grassroots base would be impossible.
"Some conservatives will accept reality," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "He's the nominee, and they're going to have to deal with him. ...Others will stand on principle or throw a temper tantrum."
As for McCain, he doesn't do contrition — at least he doesn't do it persuasively — so he won't apologize for where he parts company with conservatives on issues.
He'll tout his 83 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, the group sponsoring CPAC. He'll point out his agreements with conservatives on abortion, gun rights, judicial appointments, national security and government spending. He'll emphasize his belief that the Bush tax cuts should be extended. And he'll compare his White House plans with those of Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
"You want to come away with the fact that John McCain has broad agreement on major issues with the majority of conservatives in that room," said Charlie Black, a McCain strategist and former longtime board member of the ACU.
Still, an area of concern in an otherwise successful Super Tuesday for McCain was his tepid support from conservatives and evangelical Christians.
According to some exit polls, 42 percent of self-identified conservatives voted for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, while 30 percent voted for McCain. Among evangelical Christians, McCain finished third at 29 percent, trailing Romney's 31 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's 34 percent.
Some conservatives, notably radio talk-show hosts led by Rush Limbaugh, have lambasted McCain in recent days, hoping to derail his campaign. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, still popular among conservatives, labeled McCain unfit to be president. The deep-pocketed anti-tax group Club for Growth called McCain's record "tenuous."
James Dobson, the influential head of Focus on the Family, a Christian social-activist group, added to the pile-on Tuesday, saying he wouldn't vote if McCain is the GOP nominee.
"I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative, and in fact, has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are," Dobson said. Dobson has long been critical of McCain's opposition to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and his support of embryonic stem-cell research.
Besides Thursday's speech, McCain and his campaign surrogates are pushing back by focusing more on his conservative credentials. Speaking at a rally in New York City on Tuesday, McCain referred to Democrats as "the enemy." He invokes Ronald Reagan, the lodestar for modern conservatives, with a near manic frequency (at the last debate, he twice mentioned his role as "a foot soldier in Ronald Reagan's revolution").
The campaign also has rolled out endorsements from important social conservatives, such as Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Sam Brownback of Kansas, and economic conservatives, including publisher Steve Forbes and former New York Rep. Jack Kemp.
In addition, McCain has forged a tacit alliance with Huckabee, who's popular among evangelical voters, that should help him win support from those voters if Huckabee joins forces with him in a general election campaign.
"It's clear on my record I'm the conservative in the race," McCain said Tuesday. "I've been in many campaigns, some of them pretty tough, and the party always comes together after we decide on a nominee. It's a legacy handed down to us by Ronald Reagan."
One influential social conservative, Chuck Hurley, the president of the Iowa Family Policy Center, said "it's a stretch" that McCain could assuage the concerns of social conservatives, but two things could help: "If he says, 'I was wrong, I'm sorry, please forgive me'" on the federal marriage amendment and embryonic stem-cell research. "That would be huge"
Yet Hurley conceded that if Clinton, who inspires a visceral reaction from conservatives, is the Democratic nominee, "a lot of conservatives will hold their noses and say two-thirds of a loaf is better than none" and vote for McCain.
"He cannot win a closely divided nation ... unless the conservative base works hard. The base makes phone calls — the base licks envelopes," Hurley said.