Once John McCain’s inevitability became manifest, there was no shortage of advice from pundits, wise men and assorted kibitzers about what he needs to say to conservatives at the 35th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to earn their trust and their votes. Perhaps he needed the coaching, considering that the other Republican presidential hopefuls – but not McCain (R-AZ) – spoke at last year’s gathering of activists and politicians to introduce themselves and the issues that their candidacies would promote.

In any case, here’s a round-up of the expert opinion:

† Chairman of the Coalition for a Conservative Majority Ken Blackwell:

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. That maxim must guide Senator McCain’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference today. If it does, he could win the presidency. …

So what Mr. McCain needs to do is simple. He needs to stick to four basic themes. If he manages to convince GOP voters he means what he says, he could unify the Republican Party.

For Mr. McCain, the four themes he needs to beat constantly to unite and energize the GOP are: Cut government. Secure our borders. Win the war. Redeem our culture.

The key for each of those themes is not the policy. Each is rather a policy goal that reflects a principle at the heart of the Republican philosophy. Embracing those principles will win over a critical mass of conservative Republican base voters.

† American Thinker editor and publisher Thomas Lifson:

Inevitably at least some conservatives will cool their passions between now and November and rally to defeat Clinton or Obama, unless Senator McCain further aggravates and alienates them during the campaign (a possibility that cannot be ruled out). But McCain potentially could expand the number by addressing both the substantive and emotional problems conservatives have had with his behavior. He must win both hearts and minds, to adopt a Vietnam era slogan.  …

On a substantive level, he has emphasized the part of his record that is consistent with bedrock conservative values, showing how very different he would be from the Democrats’ nominee. His strongest case is in national defense, but he could leverage his record on fiscal restraint into a push for lower taxes while shrinking the deficit. McCain has a career rating of over 80% from the ACU, while his democratic opponents have approximately 10% ratings. …

In the realm of feelings, some form of direct or indirect apology can be a useful tool of reconciliation in normal group dynamics. But Senator McCain may not have it in him to apologize per se. But if in some form he acknowledges, directly or indirectly, that he regrets the stress he has created for conservatives, that would help his case on a purely emotional level. He might be able to get some mileage out of agreeing to hear out critics of global warming theory, or acknowledging problems with campaign finance reform, or consider reversing himself on ANWR drilling, painting a picture of a man who can learn from his mistakes.

† American Spectator publisher Alfred Regnery:

John McCain is not the first Republican nominee to give conservatives fits. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower promised Robert Taft’s supporters that he was just as conservative as Mr. Republican, as Taft was known. By the time Ike finished his two terms, conservatives were so disappointed they vowed never again to support a moderate based on vague pledges of conservative fealty. 

Few stuck to that promise, and ultimately many threw their support to Richard Nixon, Jerry Ford, Bob Dole and both Bushes. Most feel badly burned as a result. So it is no surprise that now, when the conservative movement is the dominant force in Republican circles, conservatives feel very wary about supporting anybody who is less than one of their own. … 

It will take a lot more than vague promises, but there are a few things that might bring a good many conservatives into the McCain camp.

Take a firm no-new-taxes pledge.
Get specific on spending.
Pick a fight with the press.
Pick a conservative running mate early.
Get specific on judicial nominations.

By saying the right things, he could bring a lot of conservatives into his camp. But if he does not, he could lose enough of them to assure a Democratic victory in November. 

So did McCain take all this seemingly sound counsel? For the most part, yes (Regnery’s advice isn’t applicable, anyway, until McCain’s gotten the 1,191 delegates needed to lock up the nomination). But in addition to stating his conservative bona fides and invoking Edmund Burke, McCain also drew a sharp contrast between his positions and alternative scenarios conservatives would have to live with, regardless of whether Hillary Clinton (D-NY) or Barack Obama (D-IL) occupy the Oval Office: 

I am acutely aware that I cannot succeed in that endeavor, nor can our party prevail over the challenge we will face from either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, without the support of dedicated conservatives, whose convictions, creativity and energy have been indispensible to the success our party has had over the last quarter century. … 

My record in public office taken as a whole is the record of a mainstream conservative. I believe today, as I believed twenty-five years ago, in small government; fiscal discipline; low taxes; a strong defense, judges who enforce, and not make, our laws; the social values that are the true source of our strength; and, generally, the steadfast defense of our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which I have defended my entire career as God-given to the born and unborn. …

On the issue of illegal immigration, a position which provoked the outspoken opposition of many conservatives, I stood my ground aware that my position would imperil my campaign. 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. … I accept that, and have pledged that it would be among my highest priorities to secure our borders first, and only after we achieved widespread consensus that our borders are secure, would we address other aspects of the problem in a way that defends the rule of law and does not encourage another wave of illegal immigration. …

Senator Clinton and Senator Obama want to increase the size of the federal government. I intend to reduce it. …

Senator Clinton and Senator Obama will raise your taxes. I intend to cut them. … 

They will offer a big government solution to health care insurance coverage. I intend to address the problem with free market solutions and with respect for the freedom of individuals to make important choices for themselves. 

They will appoint to the federal bench judges who are intent on achieving political changes that the American people cannot be convinced to accept through the election of their representatives. I intend to nominate judges … of the character and quality of Justices Roberts and Alito …

Senator Clinton and Senator Obama will withdraw our forces from Iraq based on an arbitrary timetable designed for the sake of political expediency … I intend to win the war … I know that the costs in lives and treasure we would incur should we fail in Iraq will be far greater than the heartbreaking losses we have suffered to date. And I will not allow that to happen. …

You have heard me say before that for all my reputation as a maverick, I have only found true happiness in serving a cause greater than my self-interest. For me, that cause has always been our country, and the ideals that have made us great. … I love her deeply and I will never, never tire of the honor of serving her. I cannot do that without your counsel and support. And I am grateful, very grateful, that you have given me this opportunity to ask for it.

McCain also told the audience that what they see is what they will get – in part, because pandering to the hard right (who will remain implacably opposed to him, anyway) will alienate the moderates and independents who’ve been voting for him all along, as well as the conservative Dems whose votes he hopes to get in the general election:

Many of you have disagreed strongly with some positions I have taken in recent years. I understand that. I might not agree with it, but I respect it for the principled position it is. And it is my sincere hope that even if you believe I have occasionally erred in my reasoning as a fellow conservative, you will still allow that I have, in many ways important to all of us, maintained the record of a conservative. … 

All I ask of any American, conservative, moderate, independent, or enlightened Democrat, is to judge my record as a whole, and accept that I am not in the habit of making promises to my country that I do not intend to keep. I hope I have proven that in my life even to my critics. Then vote for or against me based on that record, my qualifications for the office, and the direction where I plainly state I intend to lead our country. If I am so fortunate as to be the Republican nominee for President, I will offer Americans, in what will be a very challenging and spirited contest, a clearly conservative approach to governing. I will make my case to voters, no matter what state they reside in, in the same way. I will not obscure my positions from voters who I fear might not share them. I will stand on my convictions, my conservative convictions, and trust in the good sense of the voters, and in my confidence that conservative principles still appeal to a majority of Americans, Republicans, Independents and Reagan Democrats. …

We have had a few disagreements, and none of us will pretend that we won’t continue to have a few. 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.

Human Events editor Jed Babbin calls this “vintage McCain,” adding: “He promises to hear, not to listen. He promises to seek counsel, but not to respect it.” 

But one reason Mitt Romney (R-MA) failed to catch on with voters – not even conservatives, at least until McCain’s ascendancy – is that he kept reinventing himself and the rationale for his candidacy in order to address whatever issue dominated the news cycle during a particular week. Conservatives don’t want to end up with a pig in a poke – as with Bush 43, in particular – and they won’t get fooled again. Not because McCain isn’t a “true” conservative, but because he isn’t flimflamming them about who he is and what he believes. And if that’s not a sign of respect, then what is?

Though McCain was introduced by two conservative favorites, Fmr. Sen. George Allen (R-VA) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), he was loudly booed by some in the audience as he began his remarks – and again when the subject of illegal immigration came up. But McCain seemed to have won over American Values president Gary Bauer, who thought he had given a “great speech” and conceded, “There’s not much point in being a conservative if you can’t govern.”

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog.

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