Sen. John McCain may have secured his status as the Republican presidential frontrunner after winning a lion's share of delegates in yesterday's Super Tuesday contests, but exit poll results reveal that he faces a huge obstacle in his quest for his party's nomination: Republican conservatives.
While the Arizona senator has a commanding delegate lead over his rivals, only 32 percent of self-described conservatives — the majority of GOP primary voters yesterday — cast their votes for McCain, according to exit polling.
McCain: 'We Will Unite the Party'
A day after his Super Tuesday victories, the Arizona senator attempted to reassure conservatives about his intentions, previewing his message for Thursday's Conservative Political Action conference, a major gathering held each year in Washington that McCain skipped last year, rising the ire of some conservatives.
"Our message will be that we all share common principles, common conservative principles, and we should coalesce around those issues in which we are in agreement and, I hope, respectfully disagree on the few specifics that there is disagreement on," McCain said in Phoenix today before heading back to Washington.
"We share common principles and values and ideas for the future of this country based on a fundamental conservative political philosophy which has been my record," he said.
The moderate Republican senator has long had a strained relationship with the conservative base of his party, which decries his vote against President George W. Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut in 2001, sponsorship of the failed bipartisan immigration reform legislation and opposition of a federal ban on same-sex marriage.
Limbaugh Pushes McCain-Huckabee Ticket
In his path toward the Republican nomination, McCain has been continually hammered by conservatives including influential talk show host Rush Limbaugh, commentator and author Ann Coulter, and James Dobson, the evangelical Christian founder of Focus on the Family.
"For all intents and purposes, McCain is the Republican nominee," a defeated Limbaugh said on his radio show today. Limbaugh suggested McCain will march Republicans to defeat in November unless he picks former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who did well among Christian evangelicals last night, as his running mate.
"Here's the thing about McCain: he can't win conservatives in the South by virtue of this primary yesterday," Limbaugh said. "These blue states that McCain won last night are places where he has no chance in November."
Coulter has suggested she will vote for Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., if McCain becomes the nominee, arguing that Clinton has a more conservative record.
Dobson released a statement to "The Laura Ingraham Show" Tuesday announcing that he would refuse to vote in November if McCain is the nominee.
"I am convinced Sen. McCain is not a conservative, and in fact, has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are," Dobson wrote. "A spoonful of sugar does NOT make the medicine go down. I cannot, and will not, vote for Sen. John McCain, as a matter of conscience."
Today McCain argued that his support among moderates and independents will help him win the White House, and he urged conservatives to get behind him.
"The quote 'independent' voters and frankly the old [Ronald] Reagan Democrats will come our way because I think we will have a message that will appeal to all of them," McCain said.
"I see, in all due respect, the two Democratic candidates moving further and further to the left which will make for... I think, a very spirited debate and one that we can carry from a philosophical standpoint."
After last night's victories, including several winner-take-all states, McCain has a huge lead over his rivals in delegates for September's GOP convention in Minneapolis. ABC News estimates McCain has secured at least 561 delegates, to 222 for Romney. Huckabee stands at 172. To win the GOP nomination 1,191 delegates are needed.
Before his victory in the South Carolina primary, McCain's 95-year-old mother, Roberta, advised conservatives to "hold their nose" and vote for her son. But a majority of conservatives, including those in McCain's homestate of Arizona, didn't heed McCain's mother's advice.
On Super Tuesday, exit polling showed McCain narrowly lost conservatives to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, gaining 40 percent support among Arizona conservatives to Romney's 43 percent. However, those who considered themselves "very conservative" went for Romney by a much wider margin: 53 percent support for Romney to McCain's 22 percent support.
Asked by a reporter to respond to accusations by conservatives like Limbaugh that McCain will push Republicans to the left in Congress, McCain defended his record of working with Democrats and independents like Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.
I think most conservatives are very proud that we have a guy here that would stand up to his party and argue that we needed to stay the course in Iraq," McCain said of the Democratic-turned-independent senator.
"Ronald Reagan did have a record of reaching across the aisle to Democrats," he added.
"They've made their case against me and I think the majority of Republicans have stated their view and now I hope we can join together for the good of the party and the good of the nation," McCain said today.