Challenged: McCain's Conservative Authenticity

Romney is out, but McCain faces larger GOP challenges.

ByABC News
February 7, 2008, 7:13 PM

Feb. 7, 2008— -- A smiling Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, arrived at Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., for the Conservative Political Action Conference, only minutes after his vanquished rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, had left. With Romney's sudden exit from the race, McCain became, in every sense but officially, the Republican presidential nominee.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has vowed to carry on the fight, but the sense now was that it would only be a matter of time before he, too, bows out. McCain's chore today and likely for months to come would be to convince conservatives, who view with suspicion and hostility, that he is one of them. It will be a hard sell for some.

When McCain entered the hotel lobby, surrounded by supporters waving blue and white campaign posters, Laura Morales of Texas stood off to the side, shouting "Rino! Rino!"

Rino? "He's a Republican in name only," she said. "He calls himself a Republican, but he's distanced himself so far from the party that he doesn't really stand for what conservatives really believe in."

Her friend, Ruth Malhotra, a Georgia Tech undergraduate, chimed in, "He's betrayed conservatives. He will not get my support."

Inside the ballroom where McCain would speak, Ryan Galloway, of Dallas, Texas, a Romney supporter, was a bit more open to the idea of voting for McCain.

"He's going to have to come to us today and say, 'I am a true conservative, these are my values, and I do now believe in lower taxes, go through the basics, and hitting at core values of conservatives," he said.

"Will saying, 'I am a conservative' be enough to make up for the qualms of conservatives," he was asked.

At first, he said, "No." But he quickly added, "We'll just have to see later. It's going to be tough for him to pull if off, but as long as he makes an authentic effort, I guess I'll be able to support him."

These are the kind of people who McCain must convince and convert. His speech was a delicate dance. He laid claim to an overall conservative record, but he tried to do so without apologizing for the times he strayed from conservative orthodoxy.