And so Mitt Romney pulls a Ted Williams -- he hits a home run in his last at bat (and just maybe has himself frozen for political revival at a later date).
It meant that Sen. John McCain's eagerly awaited kiss-and-make-up speech to a gathering of conservative political activists in Washington turned into a shotgun wedding. McCain, R-Ariz., got no flowers, but the marriage was consummated when he was able to utter the word "immigration" and then watch the cheers (mostly) subsume the boos.
What does he get for a wedding present? The sweet vindication of one of the more remarkable comebacks of this or any political time, yes. Oh yeah -- also a dispirited and disgruntled party base that is hardly inclined to embrace (to borrow Romney's old words) the author of McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy, and McCain-Lieberman.
"In a moment that will long be remembered by Republicans, he was greeted with jeers as well as cheers," Elisabeth Bumiller and David Kirkpatrick write in The New York Times. "Many at the gathering responded to Mr. McCain's speech with a mixture of resistance and resignation, indicating the magnitude of the challenge he will face if he hopes to match the palpable energy of the Democrats. As soon as Mr. Romney announced that he was ending his campaign, a few activists appeared in the hotel lobby with handmade cardboard signs saying, 'Republicans Against McCain.' "
Looking past Mike Huckabee -- and on to Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- is the right play, and McCain's well-earned luxury. Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter can host Clinton fundraisers, James Dobson and Paul Weyrich can go pout, and Huckabee has every right to go on (though the countdown starts after Virginia votes, on Tuesday), but John McCain is going to be the Republican presidential nominee.
President Bush on Friday issued a just-about endorsement of McCain (though without mentioning his name), applying the magical C-word: "Soon we will have a nominee who will carry the conservative banner into this election and beyond," Bush said Friday morning CPAC, in a sentence that ABC's Ann Compton reports was met with dead silence.
In case the Bushies needed more prodding/convincing/cajoling, Ken Mehlman issued his endorsement Thursday night -- "it is now time for Republicans across the country to unite" -- and Karl Rove maxed out with a $2,300 online donation to McCain, a McCain aide tells The Note. (Remember those awkward embraces from 2004? One loyal soldier is getting what he's due.)
"The senator from Arizona immediately turned his attention to repairing relations with disgruntled conservatives and to opening the general election campaign with a sharp critique of his Democratic rivals," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post.
"But the reception McCain received yesterday at the annual conservative conference, where he was booed loudly when introduced, pointed to the fractured coalition that he must reunite before what is expected to be a challenging fall campaign."
Said McCain, at the Conservative Political Action Committee meeting: "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."
ABC's Ron Claiborne: "He laid claim to an overall conservative record, but he tried to do so without apologizing for the times he strayed from conservative orthodoxy."