John McCain has to decide just how comfortable he wants the conservative base of the Republican Party to be with his candidacy. Although he touts his conservative credentials on the campaign trail, it's no secret that Mr. McCain has often sought an arm's-length relationship with many conservatives. Should he lose the Florida primary on Tuesday, it will be in no small part because he didn't do more to seek an accommodation with conservatives.
A good litmus test of how Mr. McCain's relationship with conservatives stands will come at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, which opens Feb. 7, just two days after the Super Tuesday primaries.
Last year's CPAC proved a disaster for Mr. McCain. He upset the organizers by first rejecting their invitation to speak and then trying to rent a room at the same hotel so he could host a reception for the conference's delegates. CPAC officials believed the McCain camp's motivation was to avoid having television cameras recording him "pandering" to the conservative activists while letting him schmooze them one-on-one behind closed doors. The ploy failed because the hotel didn't have a suitable room available for the senator.
CPAC, considered the nerve center of conservative activism, this year is expected to drew more than 6,000 attendees. It will provide Mr. McCain with a fresh chance to build bridges now that he is closer than ever to becoming the GOP front-runner. An invitation has been extended for him to speak; so far his campaign has not made any formal acceptance.
Ed Morrissey, author of the conservative Captain's Quarters blog, is a declared supporter of Mitt Romney. But he acknowledges that Mr. McCain could help himself with a thoughtful speech at CPAC. "McCain may well win the nomination without the conservative base, but he won't win the general election with those activists sitting on the sidelines," Mr. Morrissey writes. "The time to start entering into a dialogue is now. A visit to CPAC could go a long way towards mending fences and doing some listening."
If Mr. McCain does make an appearance at CPAC, what should he say? First, he should recognize that the audience there has always respected a large part of his record. Conservatives admire his patriotic service and sacrifice and unstinting support for the war on terror. The obstacle he faces is that many CPAC attendees view him, in the words of columnist Deroy Murdock, as "Bob Dole 2.0" an admired war hero who has a highly mixed record on taxes and has gone out of his way to provoke parts of the conservative base. In Mr. McCain's case, that would include his embrace of curbs on political speech, unpopular immigration reform, and the discredited cap-and-trade approach to global warming.
No one expects Mr. McCain to retreat from his stands. But he can maintain his core positions while also making it clear he respects the views of CPAC's audience. He's already done so on immigration, telling Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" yesterday that he "got the message" on immigration and that while he still supports a guest worker program, he recognizes that voters insist the borders be secured first.
David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union and a key organizer of CPAC, says that Mr. McCain may find it easier than he thinks to make peace overtures to the CPAC attendees. "They are electorally focused like a laser beam on keeping Hillary Clinton out of the White House," Mr. Keene told me. "McCain shouldn't talk about the past, but the future. If he emphasizes his record fighting pork-barrel spending and Islamic fanaticism, he will remind conservatives of where they agree rather than where they differ."
Mr. McCain can mention other issues, too. Bob Moffit, a Heritage Foundation official who worked closely with Mitt Romney when the then-Massachusetts governor passed a statewide plan mandating the purchase of health insurance, still likes Mr. Romney. But he calls Mr. McCain's health-care proposals "transformative, and the best of any candidate running." Sen. Tom Coburn, perhaps the most fiscally conservative U.S. senator, notes that Mr. McCain fought President Bush's 2003 Medicare drug entitlement plan. Florida conservatives admire Mr. McCain's refusal to support a federal insurance program to bail out Florida homeowners threatened by natural disasters and his ability to secure the endorsement of the program's biggest booster, Gov. Charlie Crist, without retreating on the issue.
But Mr. McCain could further bolster his case by forthrightly addressing issues on which he can legitimately bridge issue differences he's had with conservatives. He told The Wall Street Journal's editorial board last month that he now recognizes the 2003 Bush tax cuts, which he voted against, helped spur economic growth. But he has seldom repeated that in public. He can and should acknowledge that scientific advances in adult stem-cell research have weakened the case for federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research that he has supported in the past.
Then there is the issue of judicial nominations, a top priority with conservatives. Nothing would improve Mr. McCain's standing with conservatives than a forthright restatement of his previously state view that "one of our greatest problems in America today is justices that legislate from the bench." Mr. McCain bruised his standing with conservatives on the issue when in 2005 he became a key player in the so-called gang of 14, which derailed an effort to end Democratic filibusters of Bush judicial nominees. More recently, Mr. McCain has told conservatives he would be happy to appoint the likes of Chief Justice John Roberts to the Supreme Court. But he indicated he might draw the line on a Samuel Alito, because "he wore his conservatism on his sleeve."
Therein lies the problem that many conservatives have with John McCain. It is the nagging feeling that after all of his years of chummily bonding with liberal reporters and garnering favorable media coverage from them that the Arizona senator is embarrassed to be seen as too much of a conservative.
Last week's editorial endorsement of Mr. McCain by the New York Times, which delighted in recounting every one of Mr. McCain's disagreements with conservatives, didn't help. "John has to a new phase of his campaign," says one prominent Republican in Congress who is backing Mr. McCain. "He has to decide if he wants to be a leader of the conservative movement that he says he joined after Ronald Reagan inspired him to enter politics in 1982. If he does that, he can be accepted. If he doesn't, he will have to settle for a shotgun marriage with conservatives."
We may know the answer to all this if Mr. McCain decides to speak at CPAC a little more than a week from now. Then the question will become: What kind of tack will he take in addressing the legitimate concerns conservatives have about his record?