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CAMPAIGN '08: ON THE OFFENSIVE

How the voting shook both parties

McCain, despite being the front-runner, has not swayed most GOP conservatives. They simply don't like him.

February 07, 2008|Stephanie Simon and DeeDee Correll | Times Staff Writers

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — With John McCain racking up delegates on a steady march toward the Republican presidential nomination, deeply conservative voters are at a loss.

They don't like McCain. They've tried, and failed, to stop him. So it was with growing frustration, and an unaccustomed sense of impotence, that many conservatives surveyed the electoral map Wednesday.

"We're in a political dilemma, as well as a personal dilemma," said Jessica Echard, executive director of the conservative advocacy group Eagle Forum. "What will we do? What can be done?"

Sit out in November? Unite behind McCain? Pressure the Arizona senator to change his policies? Demand a specific running mate? The debate, often biting, has consumed online forums, talk radio and conservative groups.

Behind it all, a key question looms: Will conservative Republicans be selling out if they back McCain -- or if they don't?

"I keep hearing that we need to be loyal Republicans and support McCain if he becomes our candidate, but I question why we should have to be more loyal to the party than McCain has [been]," a caller told right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh.

He interrupted her with enthusiasm: "That is brilliant! That is brilliant!"

Other radio hosts have taken to calling the Republican front-runner McLame, McVain or McAmnesty, a barb about his support for a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants in the country.

On her show Wednesday, talk-show host Laura Ingraham played a clip of McCain saying he respects his Democratic rivals, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. "Oh, great," Ingraham interjected with sarcasm. "You're not going after Hillary for being a big fat phony?"

Later, she spoke over other McCain audio clips: "Oh, come on!" or "He's lying!"

Conservative disdain for McCain runs deep, mostly because of his stand on illegal immigration. Other black marks: He voted against President Bush's major tax cuts, though now he supports making them permanent. He opposes a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. And he's not only willing, but expresses an eagerness, to work with Democrats in Congress.

"I don't want to reach out to them. I want to defeat their agenda," one caller told Limbaugh.

"Amen, bro," the host responded. "Amen."

Off the airwaves, Republican voters expressed similar resentment of McCain.

"He'll go as far left as he can. He's two-faced," Larry Duke, 51, said over lunch in Colorado Springs, a city at the center of the conservative Christian movement.

A leading evangelical in Colorado Springs, Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, tried his best this week to stop McCain's momentum by announcing -- on Ingraham's show -- that he would rather sit out the election than vote for McCain.

The anti-endorsement and similar remarks by conservative columnist Ann Coulter didn't stop McCain from notching victories Tuesday in New York, California and seven other states. McCain held his own among born-again Christians, one of Dobson's key constituencies.

But exit polls exposed his lack of support from the far right -- a weakness that alarms many Republicans.

"I'm worried we'll lose our base," said Adam Saffer, 20, a student at the University of Colorado campus here. "I can see him splitting the party."

In state after state, McCain ran well among voters who described themselves as "somewhat conservative" but poorly among "very conservative" voters. In California, for instance, he took 45% of the "somewhat" crowd but 21% of the "very conservative" voters.

To help close that gap, McCain asked right-wing radio hosts to quit tearing into him. One of his longtime adversaries, Hugh Hewitt, complied, telling his listeners Wednesday that it was time to accept their likely nominee. That left a caller from Colorado confused: "Today it's like a McCain love-in," she protested.

Even with other radio hosts still fanning the anti-McCain fire, analyst Joe Sullivan predicted that acceptance would spread as the general election approached.

"If Hillary is the nominee, you'll see Republicans come together so fast, you won't have time to spit," said Sullivan, editor of the Southeast Missourian, which covers a conservative rural region.

Voters hoping for reassurance about a McCain candidacy will be listening closely to his speech today at a major conference of conservatives in Washington.

"He'll have no problem convincing me to pull the lever in order to stop [the Democrats], but I still hold out hopes of being excited again," wrote Mark Kilmer, a regular commentator on the popular conservative website Redstate.

That drew a rebuke from a reader who vowed to write in the name of an acceptable conservative rather than mark a ballot for McCain: "I will NOT vote for a democrat or a FAKE democrat. I will be true to my values."

Though the discontent runs deep, even veteran activists wonder how to translate it into action.

"It's a quandary," said Tom Minnery, a senior vice president with the political arm of Focus on the Family.

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