The Note: Mitt-ster's Congeniality

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.

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"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.

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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."

Nothing gets a party going like having its best shot at winning, and McCain has spent a career performing post-primary positioning. But his work with the base is far from done: "It is Mr. McCain's Senate record on core conservative issues that will continue to rile conservatives, regardless of his words now," Elizabeth Holmes, Alex Frangos, and Jackie Calmes write in The Wall Street Journal.

McCain has it locked up in time for it to influence the Democratic primary, which is set to rage in the middle of the field while McCain performs a few victory laps. It means independents can go vote Democrat in open primaries (more likely to help Obama?) and that Democrats can start thinking strategically about the matchup they want.

It also means that the Democratic candidates can start trying out their lines of attack a bit early. Clinton, D-N.Y., quickly picked up a Romney line: "As Senator McCain has said, he doesn't really know much about the economy," she told ABC's Jake Tapper. "It's not been an issue of his concern in the past."

"As Virginia Democrats choose between Clinton and Obama on Tuesday, their decision could hinge in part on whom they see as the candidate most able to beat front-runner McCain in November," Bill Turque and Katherine Shaver write in The Washington Post.

Said Clinton (sounding almost like Obama talking about herself): "I believe he offers more of the same."

"Who would be the best Democrat to stand next to John McCain and debate national security?" Clinton said in Richmond.

All signs indicate that Clinton's finances are back on track. But could it be (and perish the thought) that the alarm bells about her red ink were triggered inside the building? Was it all just spin, a savvy maneuver designed to cast Clinton as the underdog? (If so -- hook, line, and sinker.)

ABC's Kate Snow reports that high-level aides never stopped receiving pay: "It's not happening," a source tells Snow. "One longtime Democratic consultant not affiliated with any campaign wondered if perhaps the whole thing wasn't a big stunt to garner media attention and look like an 'underdog.' "

The narrative of Clinton's financial difficulties was pamphlet-sized -- astoundingly brief in the era of endless news cycles: "Concerned that it could lose several primaries and caucuses through the rest of February, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign sought to create an alternate storyline of success on Thursday by announcing that Mrs. Clinton had raised $7.5 million online so far this month," Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times.

"That unusually high figure was quickly overshadowed by Senator Barack Obama's announcement that he had raised the same amount in 36 hours since the 22-state contest on Tuesday, in addition to the $32 million that he raised in January."

But there's a cost to that $5 million loan Clinton floated her campaign -- and not just in catching her donors off-guard.

It opens a door to the muddy world of Clinton finances -- including the never-comfortable fact that a couple that left the White House near bankruptcy is now enormously wealthy.

"Mr. Clinton is negotiating to sever his high-profile business ties with Los Angeles businessman Ron Burkle, who is also a major fund-raiser for Sen. Clinton," Brody Mullins and John M. Emshwiller write in The Wall Street Journal.

"That deal could soon provide an additional $20 million or more to the Clinton family coffers -- potentially increasing Sen. Clinton's personal access to cash by about $10 million in her expensive battle against Illinois Sen. Barack Obama."

Spokesman Howard Wolfson "declined to discuss the relationship between Mr. Clinton's businesses and Sen. Clinton's campaign finances, saying that she didn't intend to use any more of her family funds." "Unless and until that changes," he said, such questions "are purely hypothetical."

Obama is jumping on the political opportunity: "Sen. Barack Obama called on his rival Sen. Hillary Clinton to release her recent income tax returns -- a move the Clintons have long resisted," ABC's David Wright reports.

Said Obama: "The American people deserve to know where you get your income from."

Clinton is "imitating her opponent's strategy": "The New York senator, many of whose biggest contributors have already given the most allowed by law, is seeking smaller donations from the millions of voters who supported her in the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primaries," Jonathan Salant and Timothy J. Burger write for Bloomberg News.

Sen. Clinton will get at least two more debates out of Obama -- at Cleveland State University Feb. 26, and another one in Texas before March 4.

Her delegate lead is down to 79 going into what could be a big few days for Obama, per ABC's eminently bookmark-able delegate scorecard.

And with McCain close to locking down the nomination, let the veepstakes begin. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich's unveiled his short list for McCain on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Friday: Gov. Charlie Crist, R-Fla., Gov. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., Huckabee, or Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., in a "unity ticket."

Gingrich, R-Ga., said he plans to urge the CPAC gathering on Saturday to come to terms with a McCain nomination: "There are people who are very unhappy with aspects of John McCain's career," he said. "But I think on balance, you're looking at the total person, who's a moderate conservative. . . . Maybe it will be healthy for conservatives to start a new presidency by understanding that you've got to measure every single proposal. . . . It's not about a yes-no test on one personality."

His prediction on the Democratic side? "Senator Obama is slowly and steadily pulling away," Gingrich said. "He is becoming an unusual phenomenon in American politics."

(Peggy Noonan sounds a similar theme in The Wall Street Journal: "Mrs. Clinton is losing this thing. It's not one big primary, it's a rolling loss, a daily one, an inch-by-inch deflation. The trends and indices are not in her favor. She is having trouble raising big money, she's funding her campaign with her own wealth, her moral standing within her own party and among her own followers has been dragged down, and the legacy of Clintonism tarnished by what Bill Clinton did in South Carolina.")

Who wants to rail against Washington in Washington (state)? It's Pacific time for all the major candidates on Friday, and then it's back to the Washington (DC) region on Saturday for Obama and Clinton, at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on Saturday. Get details on all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also in the news:

Meet Rush Limbaugh . . . Hill-raiser? "Should I do my part, not by joining my liberal friends in the Republican Party, but actually raising money for Mrs. Clinton, and asking you to join me, so that she would have a chance here to once again have a good shot at getting a Democrat nomination so that we win the White House?" he said on his radio program Thursday, ABC's Jake Tapper reports.

Huckabee is staying in the race, and with Romney's exit he picked up the endorsement of James Dobson. "The remaining candidate for whom I could vote is Governor Huckabee," the conservative leader said in a statement, per the AP's Eric Gorski.

Maybe Huckabee is still McCain's best friend, even if he stays in the race for a while. "How can a longer primary campaign good for Mr. McCain? So long as it's civil, it keeps him in the news as a winner in Republican primaries, and provides a forum for Mr. McCain to continue traveling the country and spreading his message in a relaxed, unthreatening political environment," The New York Times' John Harwood writes.

"Think of it as the heavyweight boxing champion drawing TV coverage for workouts with his sparring partner."

He is not a serious threat to McCain's march: "Huckabee could score more party delegates in the Kansas and Louisiana contests Saturday and in the Virginia primary Tuesday, but his continued candidacy would only slow, not stop, McCain's march to the 1,191 delegates needed to capture the nomination," Michael Finnegan writes in the Los Angeles Times.

"Huckabee would have to win almost all the remaining delegates in order to snatch the nomination from McCain," Jill Zuckman writes in the Chicago Tribune. "The remaining primary states award their Republican convention delegates on a proportional basis, rather than winner-take-all, making it that much harder for the underfunded Huckabee to succeed."

But Huck could be a conservative thorn in McCain's side: "He has the potential to undermine Sen. John McCain's general election prospects, as Pat Buchanan did to President George H.W. Bush in 1992," Ralph Z. Hallow writes in the Washington Times.

Said Huckabee adviser Ed Rollins: "[W]e are going to pursue the nomination and draw the contrasts with McCain on conservative issues."

Huckabee may or may not make himself any more friends from here on out, but he's already been the single biggest factor in the Republican race. And now he's ABC's Buzz Maker of the Week.

What went wrong with Romney? How did a $35 million-plus (and it's a big plus) personal investment turn to terribly wrong? It turned out that religion probably wouldn't even make his top-five list of his obstacles (at least he was always a Mormon).

"Mr. Romney's advisers acknowledged Thursday an array of tactical missteps and miscalculations," Michael Luo writes in The New York Times. "Perhaps most significantly, they conceded that they had failed to overcome doubts about Mr. Romney's authenticity as they sought to position him as the most electable conservative in the race, a jarring contrast to his more moderate record as governor of Massachusetts."

How about those meandering messages? "He believed he could remake himself as a social conservative and still convince voters he was genuine. And his campaign did not foresee that another conservative, one with lustrous Christian credentials, would emerge as a strong challenger," Michael Levenson and Lisa Wangsness write in The Boston Globe.

"Yesterday, as they surveyed the wreckage of his campaign, even his most ardent supporters conceded that Romney had not played to his strengths as a turnaround artist, management expert, and fiscally conservative governor."

National Review's Byron York: "He says he believes certain things deeply now, but he believed other things deeply not that long ago. And each time, it seems, his deeply-held beliefs jibed with what was most advantageous politically."

Slate's John Dickerson: "After months of trying to find his place in the Republican Party, Mitt Romney has found it. He now joins John Connally, Phil Gramm, and Steve Forbes, the other big-spending GOP presidential candidates who flamed out spectacularly."

And yet -- does anyone else sense Romney 2012 or 2016? "The savviest political play of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign may have come in the way he ended it," per ABC News.

"In casting his decision to suspend his campaign as a recommitment to Republican principles -- in front of a crowd of conservative activists in Washington -- he went a long way toward establishing himself as a champion of a conservative movement that may never fully embrace the man who looks increasingly like the likely 2008 GOP presidential nominee."

He's got some history on his side: "In the Republican Party, unlike the Democratic Party, finishing second is considered an achievement, not a rejection: Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush were each second-place finishers at one time, and Bob Dole secured the nomination in 1996 after finishing second eight years earlier, just as John McCain now seems to have done," Peter Canellos writes in The Boston Globe.

(Here's guessing Kevin Madden, Matt Rhoades, Carl Forti, and the rest of Beth Myers' crew won't be hurting for work either.)

Obama hit New Orleans on Thursday, and Clinton isn't planned a visit before Saturday's voting -- but her campaign's not ceding any ground. "Her campaign took Obama to task for voting against 2006 legislation to give Gulf Coast states 37.5 percent of new royalties from expanded oil and gas production, a change potentially worth $13 billion to Louisiana during the next 30 years," Bruce Alpert writes in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

He's a little late to get much attention for it, but Gov. Chet Culver, D-Iowa, endorsed Obama at a rally just over the border, in Omaha, joining Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. "So far, Hillary Clinton has given no indication that she plans to visit the Cornhusker State," Robynn Tysver writes for the Omaha World Herald. Clinton "appears more focused on states further down the election calendar."

Clinton does have a Nebraska TV ad up, featuring former senator Bob Kerrey, D-Neb.

Remember Bill Clinton? He behaved himself in Maine on Thursday: "President Clinton, refraining from directly mentioning either Senator Obama or the finances of his wife's campaign, is making the case for Senator Clinton's election to the presidency on the basis of specific policy positions -- on education, health care and the economy," Seth Gitell writes in the New York Sun.

ABC's Jake Tapper and Eloise Harper follow the Democratic battle out to Washington state: "Clinton and Obama both flew to this Pacific Northwest state Thursday in preparation for Saturday's caucuses," they write.

"Both campaigns had assumed that by now one of the candidates would have taken the lead, but instead the 22-states holding contests on Super Tuesday, February 5, only enhanced the deadlocked nature of the Democratic contest."

In Washington, Obama and Clinton both want to be the outsider. "But both may want to pause and consider the recent history of Washington's Democratic caucuses: Despite much talk of the love of the insurgent, the well-credentialed and experienced candidate has won here," David Postman, Ralph Thomas, and Haley Edwards write in the Seattle Times.

"Clinton and Obama don't fit neatly into the categories of insider and insurgent, or as one who appeals to the heart and one to the head."

It's sort of a shame that Washington's bizarre caucus/primary system won't matter more, because it would have been fun to watch. From the (Tacoma) News Tribune's explainer: "If you're a Republican, your primary vote will help decide about half of the delegates to the Republican National Convention. Your caucus participation will help decide the other half. Therefore, attending both will make your vote count the most."

Off the presidential front . . . House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, launches a new organizing effort for GOP candidates and activists. From the press release that's going out Friday morning: "FreedomProject.org combines grassroots action tools with online fundraising and up-to-date news from Washington, creating a one-stop-shop for Republican activists looking to support GOP candidates and have an impact on House races around the country."

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, is organizing an effort to convince the Supreme Court to strike down the District of Columbia's gun laws. "Hutchison said Thursday she is filing a friend-of-the-court brief in a challenge to the laws," the AP's Suzanne Gamboa writes.

"Fifty-five senators and 250 House members have signed the brief to be filed Thursday by her and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont."

The kicker:

"I was merely pre-occupied with the business of trying to escape the distinction of pre-season frontrunner for the Republican nomination." -- John McCain, explaining his absence from CPAC's last gathering.

"McCain is as relevant as Britney Spears. No one takes him seriously anymore." -- Rick Shafton, Republican pollster, speaking last summer (and one of many to be eating his words on Friday).

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