WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain, his biggest obstacle to the Republican presidential nomination removed, sought to reassure conservatives Thursday that he's one of them.
"I am proud to be a conservative," McCain told the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual convention that brings together the many wings of American conservatism.
McCain hit all the right notes in his speech. He quoted Ronald Reagan and Edmund Burke. He vowed to lower taxes and reduce the size of the federal government. He promised to win the war in Iraq and "make unmistakably clear to Iran we will not permit a government that espouses the destruction of the state of Israel as its fondest wish and pledges undying enmity to the United States to possess the weapons to advance their malevolent ambitions." And he promised to appoint conservative judges and justices.
McCain spoke two hours after his chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, announced that he was suspending his campaign and effectively quitting the race. McCain congratulated Romney on running a "dedicated, energetic campaign."
Elements of the conservative coalition have long questioned McCain's conservative credentials. Economic conservatives are irate about his votes against President Bush's tax cuts and his call for federal action on climate change. Social conservatives are enraged by his support for embryonic stem-cell research and his opposition to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Well-funded interest groups despise his campaign-finance reform law, which they consider an assault on free speech.
And his support for overhauling immigration policy incensed many conservatives, who view the changes as amnesty for illegal immigrants.
For McCain to have any hope in November, he needs to persuade conservative activists to look past all that, said Ralph Reed, a conservative strategist.
"This is the most fired-up I've ever seen the liberal wing of the Democratic Party," Reed said. "They're hungry and they want to win. And if you're John McCain and you're going into that kind of a fall campaign, you need to have the intensity, the enthusiasm and the energy of the grassroots of your party, because 70 percent of the volunteers in the Republican Party are either conservatives or evangelicals. They're the ones who walk the precincts, work in the phone banks, lick the envelopes and ring the doorbells."
It will take more than a speech, though McCain's speech was a start.
"Running mate, platform, prime-time speeches in Minneapolis and then the overarching themes of the campaign have to strike conservative themes," Reed said, adding particularly that McCain's running mate would need "street cred" with conservatives.
McCain's aides frequently point out his 83 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, which sponsors the conference. He follows basic conservative tenets on abortion, gun rights, national security and government spending.
It doesn't impress some.
"It's the 17 percent that worries me," said Daniel Lipian, a Bowling Green State University student who chairs the Ohio College Republican Federation. "These are not small issues. These are some of the biggest issues. ...There's nothing that could make me vote for John McCain."
Others wouldn't go that far.
"The issues he's bad on, he's really, really bad on," agreed Jason Mattera of Washington, who works for a conservative interest group. But Mattera said he'll likely vote for McCain come November to get more conservatives on the Supreme Court.
McCain received a generally warm reception; the smattering of boos that met him when he took the stage was gone by the end of his speech.
And before his speech, McCain won the endorsement of Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who'd supported Romney. DeMint warned the conference "through my tears and disappointment" that "our only chance to keep (Barack) Obama or Hillary (Clinton) from the presidency is to empower Senator McCain."
Yet McCain warned the audience that he'd never be ideologically pure.
"We have had a few disagreements, and none of us will pretend that we won't continue to have a few," McCain said. "But even in disagreement, especially in disagreement, I will seek the counsel of my fellow conservatives. If I am convinced my judgment is in error, I will correct it. And if I stand by my position, even after benefit of your counsel, I hope you will not lose sight of the far more numerous occasions when we are in complete accord."
It was clear that McCain still has far to go to win the hearts of conservative voters when, turning to illegal immigration, he was met with hoots and hollers.
A grinning McCain gamely reiterated what he always says on the campaign trail: that he's learned that the government must secure the borders before Americans will accept comprehensive changes.
Michael McLaughlin, a retiree from McLean, Va., who wore a T-shirt that said "McCain = Amnesty," said he wasn't convinced. McLaughlin said he couldn't vote for McCain in the general election because "I cannot acquiesce and be complicit in electing someone whose policies would destroy our country."