WASHINGTON — John McCain seized control of a fractured Republican Party Thursday, vanquishing his last serious rival for its presidential nomination and reaching out to a conservative base that remains skeptical of him, if not hostile to him.
The Arizona senator all but locked up the nomination with the sudden withdrawal of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
His sole remaining competitor is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a populist outsider with strong appeal to Christian conservatives but almost no support among nonreligious voters, no money to wage the kind of campaign it would take to reach them and no friends in the party's talk-radio and TV echo chamber to help him rally disaffected conservatives.
"The contest for the GOP presidential nomination is over," said conservative blogger Michelle Malkin. "The conservative movement is not."
McCain still must win more delegates to assure a first-ballot nomination at this summer's Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. But with his big lead in delegates, he could win fewer than half the remaining delegates and still prevail. Huckabee needs to win the vast majority to overtake McCain.
McCain's triumph was sealed at, of all places, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, a right-wing mecca of party activists and strategists that he shunned last year as hostile territory.
First, Romney appeared for what was supposed to be a clarion call to conservatives to rally behind him as the anti-McCain. Instead, Romney ended his stump speech by announcing that he was quitting to allow McCain to start taking on the Democrats for a fall campaign.
"If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator (Hillary) Clinton or (Barack) Obama would win," he said.
"I feel I must now stand aside, for our party and for our country," he added to groans from supporters caught by surprise.
"I'm heartbroken," said Brynn Sorenson, a nurse from Springfield, Va., after watching the man she called the one true conservative step aside. "I think McCain's a wolf in sheep's clothing. I don't know if he's a true conservative."
Come November when the choice is between McCain and a Democrat?
"I'll probably stay with the Republican, even if it's McCain. But I'm not excited about it."
Huckabee insisted Thursday that conservatives should coalesce around his campaign. "The people of this country need a choice," he said.
But few conservatives even mentioned Huckabee as a viable alternative Thursday, and talk-radio lords such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity dislike Huckabee as much as they do McCain.
A key question now for McCain is whether he can rally conservatives or whether he tries to remake the party by trading conservatives for moderates and independents as he's done in the primaries, pushing the party toward the center.
Appearing before the conference a few hours later, McCain acted like the de facto nominee, lauding Romney and Huckabee and reaching out to conservatives who so far have refused to coalesce behind his candidacy.
He insisted that he meant "no personal insult" when he snubbed their gathering last year, acknowledged their differences on issues such as illegal immigration and tax cuts, and stressed that they agree more than they disagree.
"We have had a few disagreements, and none of us will pretend that we won't continue to have a few," he 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."
Said David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union: "If John McCain were to do nothing except get the nomination, more than half would go along with him because they're Republicans. You're not going to have millions of conservatives walk out on him." The rest, he said, need to be courted and assured they wouldn't be shunned by a McCain White House.
"Conservatives have a sense he doesn't like them. I think they're right," Keene said in an interview with McClatchy. He'd supported Romney. "That makes his problem more difficult than if he just doesn't agree with you on taxes. You can always make a deal on that. But in order for the deal to be credible, you have to trust the guy. And I'm not sure conservatives trust him."
Some prominent conservatives rallied to McCain's side quickly Thursday, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and former Virginia Sen. George Allen, who'd supported former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.
Cornyn said that he's disagreed with McCain on some issues, notably illegal immigration. But he said he agreed with McCain particularly on national security issues. And he said it was time for the party to close ranks behind the Arizona senator.
"I have been determined to stay out of the primary contests and allow the members of our party to work their will," Cornyn said. "I now believe, with a number of the other candidates deciding to step aside, that it is time for the Republican Party to come together and stand behind Senator McCain."