John McCain survived Super Tuesday with a comfortable delegate lead after wins in the key winner take all states (NY, CT, MO, and AZ), even though he lost the southern states to Mike Huckabee and the caucus states to Mitt Romney.
But there is no rest for the weary this week and Thursday, McCain faces perhaps his toughest audience of the election cycle – the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference in Washington.
Last year, McCain was the only declared candidate to turn down an invitation to speak to the group. This year he cannot afford to skip it.
Can McCain assure the skeptical crowd that he is one of them?
CPAC founder David Keene has been quite vocal in his criticism of McCain on campaign finance reform, immigration, global warming and the Bush tax cuts. This speech isn't just about the people in the room – McCain needs to convince the conservative wing of the Republican Party that he can unite the party in the general election against an enthusiastic (Fired up and ready to go?) Democratic Party.
But with nearly 60 percent of the delegates he needs to win the nomination, does McCain even need to win over the CPAC crowd?
These are not voters who will vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, but it would make things a lot smoother for McCain if he could get the seal of approval from the conservative wing of the party, if only to counter and possibly quiet down his critics on talk radio and cable.
ABC News' Polling Director Gary Langer looked at the exit polling data from Super Tuesday and found that McCain's chief challenge remains expanding his support to the conservative core of the GOP, particularly "very"conservative voters.
"Can and will the party be energized behind its nominee if he's inadequate or barely adequate to the base?" Langer asks.
Conservative voters went for Romney yesterday (39-32-23 over McCain and Huckabee) but a glimpse at McCain's home turf shows the significant challenge he is facing.
"AZ conservatives went 43-40, Romney-McCain - close, but this is the home state. And "very conservatives" went 53-22 for Romney in AZ. This also played out on the issue of immigration, which ranked as high as the economy in AZ; immigration voters went to Romney."
McCain senior advisor Charlie Black told reporters today that the CPAC speech will be an opportunity for McCain to talk to his fellow conservatives about the issues on which they agree – which sounds quite similar to the rhetoric/spin from the Giuilani campaign right before the NRA convention.
Black said that McCain has been uniting the party and the speech won't be anything new.
"It's not going to be much different from what you hear him say everyday," Black said.
Last March TIME Magazine wrote that there was a time when McCain "seemed the most natural heir to Reagan" and noted that it was Reagan who first introduced McCain to a conservative audience at CPAC in 1974. McCain and two other former Vietnam POWs were in attendance at the event and spotlighted by Reagan.
McCain's speech is sandwiched in between Mitt Romney's at 12:15 pm ET and Ron Paul's at 4:30 pm ET.
ABC News' John Berman reports that Romney advisers are pointing out that McCain is getting resistance from the Republican base and in some states, Huckabee helped Romney by taking away McCain voters.