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No heaven on earth

Politics | With Romney down and McCain up, conservative evangelical leaders scramble for leverage. What must the maverick do to win the right?

Issue: "The Road to Cana," Feb. 23, 2008

Conservative pundit Ann Coulter thinks Sen. Hillary Clinton is "a creepy person," but she contends that Sen. John McCain is worse: "I would vote for the devil over John McCain."

Republican radio host Rush Limbaugh says that McCain will destroy the Republican Party by seeking the presidential nomination, and he offers this reason: The senator aims to exact revenge for a nasty primary battle he lost in South Carolina eight years ago.

On the campaign trail, McCain says he doesn't sweat the vitriol: "I don't even listen to Rush. . . . I'm not a masochist."

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McCain could afford that cheekiness after snatching up several hundred delegates in primaries across the country and watching his most serious opponent, Mitt Romney, drop out of the race this month. But he can't afford it for long: The Republican front-runner may not listen to Limbaugh, but if he wants to win the White House, he can't tune out conservative angst over his surprising surge.

That angst was audible at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., in early February. The conservative crowd shouted "No" when Romney told the group he was suspending his bid for the presidency and paving the way for McCain to clinch the nomination. A few hours later, some in the crowd jeered when McCain stood behind the same podium.

In a straw poll of some 1,500 participants at the conservative convention, Romney narrowly won the most votes despite withdrawing from the race. One out of three convention-goers said if McCain wins the Republican nomination they'll vote for someone else in the general election or won't vote at all.

Opposition came from some evangelical corners as well. Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson released a statement saying he believes McCain is not a conservative, and that if he wins the Republican nomination, "I simply will not cast a ballot for president for the first time in my life." A week later, Dobson endorsed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who continued to win primaries but significantly trailed McCain in the delegate count.

Huckabee's unexpected success in several primary contests underscored McCain's problems with conservatives: Huckabee grabbed victories in a wide band of Southern states viewed as conservative strongholds, preventing McCain from sewing up the nomination as quickly as he had hoped, and highlighting the senator's weakness among a major GOP constituency.

Long viewed as a political maverick for championing causes opposed by conservatives and evangelicals, McCain must now find a way to reach out to both groups. Meanwhile, those groups must decide whether to reach back. For McCain, one political reality is clear: The battle for the White House hinges on winning over the base of his own party without alienating independent voters who like his maverick streak.

Conservative antipathy is nothing new for McCain. Though the senator has maintained a consistent pro-life voting record, opposition to wasteful government spending, and steadfast support for an unpopular war, he's also maintained positions anathema to many conservatives. Issues like campaign finance reform, initial opposition to President Bush's tax cuts, and support for bipartisan immigration reform have rankled many in the GOP base.

Rick Santorum is one of those rankled Republicans. The former Pennsylvania senator and conservative Catholic endorsed Romney a week before the candidate withdrew from the race. Before that endorsement, Santorum told conservative radio host Mark Levin that he often disagreed with McCain during his two terms in the Senate: "John McCain was not only against us, but leading the charge on the other side."

Less than a week after Romney withdrew from the race, Santorum told WORLD he's still rankled by McCain, but won't avoid the ballot box in November if he's the GOP pick: "When you look at the [Democratic] alternatives, it makes the choice of whoever the Republican nominee is that much easier to vote for."

Ultimately, pointing out the alternative may be the key to McCain's hopes of wooing conservatives. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says McCain could take several steps to reach out to evangelicals, but adds: "In the end, there's not anything that John McCain can do to unite conservatives that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama can't do better."

The prospect of a Democratic presidency looms large in Gary Bauer's support of McCain. The Christian conservative and former presidential candidate formally endorsed McCain in early February and told WORLD he's baffled by evangelicals who say they won't vote for the senator if he's the Republican nominee.

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