As Romney Quits, Right Is Still Wary of McCain

By: Wall Street Journal

As Romney Quits, Right Is Still Wary of McCain

WASHINGTON — Reeling from a poor Super Tuesday showing, Mitt Romney ended his year-old campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, clearing the way for the presumptive nominee, Sen. John McCain, to reach out to skeptical conservatives.

Messrs. McCain and Romney both spoke to the same large audience of leading figures from the Republican right at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference here. Mr. McCain got some cheers but also scattered boos — a remarkable reception for the likely Republican standard-bearer.

In announcing his withdrawal, Mr. Romney called on the party to unite against Democrats, whose policies he described as a “surrender to terror.” He left the door open to a future presidential candidacy, comparing himself to Ronald Reagan, who lost the Republican nomination in 1976 but captured it four years later.

While two Republicans remain in the race — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul — Mr. Romney’s exit virtually assures Mr. McCain’s nomination, because the Arizona senator already has a wide lead in delegates. But as yesterday’s conference showed, Mr. McCain needs all the time he can get to work for a big turnout of conservatives on his behalf.

“McCain! He’s so awful, so nasty, so selfish. It’s an awful tragedy,” said Susan Lowe of Vienna, Va., in tears as she left Mr. Romney’s speech. The senator, she added, would “let Mexicans take over this country” — a reference to his earlier support of legislation that would create a path for illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.

But college student Jessica Davidson, who carried a Romney sign in her tote bag, said she would support Mr. McCain now over either of the two Democrats remaining in the race, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. “I guess I don’t have a choice. He’s the better alternative to Obama or Hillary,” said Ms. Davidson.

Balancing Act

Mr. McCain’s appearance captured the balancing act he now faces — needing desperately to win over conservatives and solidify the Republican base, yet unwilling to alienate the independent voters who have backed him in the past, and whose support is essential to win a general election. Republicans are likely to enter the fall campaign at a disadvantage because of President Bush’s unpopularity and the enthusiasm evident among Democrats during the primary season.

“I am proud to be a conservative,” Mr. McCain told his listeners, many of whom consider him a moderate — or worse, a virtual Democrat. He said he has “confidence that conservative principles still appeal to a majority of Americans, Republicans, independents and Reagan Democrats.”

Mr. McCain recalled that he first attended the conference in 1975 — not long after his release from a Vietnam prisoner-of-war camp in Vietnam — as a guest of conservative hero Ronald Reagan. Mr. McCain quoted the late president’s admonition that “a political party cannot be all things to all people.”

He said he opposes abortion and shares the conservative principles of a strong military, small government and low taxes. He named many policies where he has taken a conservative stand — including support for the Iraq war and opposition to the prescription-drug benefit that President Bush and a then-Republican majority Congress added to the Medicare program.

Yet it is Mr. McCain’s Senate record on core conservative issues that will continue to rile conservatives, regardless of his words now. He opposed Mr. Bush’s tax cuts as too skewed to the rich, although he now says he’ll work to make them permanent. He opposed constitutional amendments against abortion and same-sex marriage, and was part of a bipartisan “Gang of 14″ in the Senate who compromised on confirming the president’s judicial nominations. Mr. McCain also has been one of the few Republicans to side with Democrats against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Immigration Overhaul

At the conference, the loudest boos came when Mr. McCain talked about his support last year for an immigration overhaul. “I stood my ground aware that my position would imperil my campaign,” which it nearly did last summer. But, he added, “I respect your opposition, for I know that the vast majority of critics to the bill based their opposition in a principled defense of the rule of law.”

At an earlier panel discussion at the conference titled “Is the GOP Still Lost,” South Carolina’s Sen. Jim DeMint, a Romney supporter, said it was time to rally around Mr. McCain. He got equal parts cheers and boos.

Mr. Romney received a warmer reception, belying his campaign’s failure to consolidate support among social, economic and military-minded conservatives. He noted that in his appearance a year earlier, at the outset of his campaign, the conservative group “gave me the send-off I needed.” Mr. McCain was a no-show at the 2007 event, the only Republican in the then-large field of aspirants who didn’t come courting.

Mr. Romney decided on Wednesday to end his quest after a poor showing in Tuesday’s Republican contests in 21 states. He lost to Mr. McCain in the biggest prizes, New York and California. Perhaps even more crushing to Mr. Romney’s hopes, Mr. Huckabee triumphed unexpectedly across several Southern states. The former Arkansas governor won with the broad support of evangelical conservatives, many of whom viewed Mr. Romney suspiciously because of his onetime support for abortion rights and his Mormon faith.

Mr. Romney’s advisers had expected a two-person race after Super Tuesday between their candidate and Mr. McCain. Instead, it is Mr. Huckabee who now remains the main rival to Mr. McCain left in the race — though the two have had relations so cordial that many Republicans think Mr. Huckabee is angling to be Mr. McCain’s vice-presidential pick. With much of the conservative Christian vote now to himself, Mr. Huckabee could slow Mr. McCain’s march by picking up wins in Kansas and Virginia.

“I am redoubled in my resolve to carry on my campaign in a civil, dignified manner,” Mr. Huckabee said in a statement. He said he would continue to push for tightening border security and “protecting life and traditional marriage.”

As Mr. Romney spoke, many seemed ignorant of the news that had just broken about his withdrawal because of spotty cellphone service. After a long recitation of conservative positions, Mr. Romney finally disclosed his intentions. “I feel I have to now stand aside, for our party and for our country,” he said. “If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention…I’d be making it easier for Sen. Clinton or Obama to win.”

Deferral to McCain

Following a cry of “No!” and a round of boos from the audience, Mr. Romney said, “In this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror” — his reference to the Democratic candidates’ calls for phased withdrawals from Iraq.

Romney advisers said he wrote his speech himself. Despite his deferral to Mr. McCain, Mr. Romney indicated he would seek to keep his delegates’ support “all the way to the convention” this summer in Minneapolis. “Fight on, just like Ronald Reagan did in 1976,” he said.

Some conservatives saw in that remark a hint of Mr. Romney’s plans in 2012 should Mr. McCain lose this year. After Gerald Ford won the Republican nomination over Mr. Reagan but lost the 1976 presidential election, Mr. Reagan won the presidency four years later. Mr. Romney sidestepped questions about his future, saying he has made no decisions.

–Laura Meckler contributed to this article.

Write to Jackie Calmes at

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