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Conservatives a Test for McCain After Romney's Exit


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who had a disappointing day on Super Tuesday, announced he would suspend his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): Now if I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention…

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. ROMNEY: …I'd forestall the launch of a national campaign, and frankly, I'd be making it easier for Senator Clinton or Obama to win.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. ROMNEY: Frankly, in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.

(Soundbite of crowd)

NORRIS: His decision stunned the conservatives attending the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. That's where he made his announcement. And that leaves John McCain as a prohibitous(ph) favorite for his party's nomination. But John McCain still has plenty of work to do to win over many conservatives, which he attempted to do at the conference today.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us to talk about this major development.

And Mara, with or without Mitt Romney in the race, John McCain has real problems with conservatives. And what did he say today and how is it received?

MARA LIASSON: Well, he certainly does have problems, and I think he was actually received better than I thought. Of course, the hall at CPAC was packed with his supporters and there were plenty of boos. There are also people in the lobby holding hand-lettered signs saying Republican against John McCain. But he did get the endorsement of George Allen. Very important, George Allen - before he imploded and lost to Senate reelection race after the Macaca incident - was really like a hero to conservatives. The second coming of Ronald Reagan.

NORRIS: And important to the South also.

LIASSON: Very important. Also the people I talked to in the crowd - some of them said, over my dead body. I'd rather have Hillary Clinton be the president than John McCain. A lot of other people said it will take a lot of soul searching. But McCain really addressed this problem today. And here's what he said.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Many of you have disagreed strongly with some positions I have taken in recent years. I understand that. I might not agree with it, but I respect it for the principled position it is. And it is my sincere hope that even if you believe I have occasionally errored in my reasoning as a fellow conservative, you will still allow - that I have in many ways important to all of us - maintain the record of a conservative.

NORRIS: Now, Mara, the distrust or discomfort with John McCain among some conservatives goes back years, which is well before 2007, 2008. Could you remind us why the conservatives have so much trouble with McCain?

LIASSON: Well, the very list is very long of McCain's apostasies. First of all, there's McCain-Feingold. They hate that. McCain-Kennedy, the immigration bill that conservatives consider to be amnesty. He voted against the first Bush tax cuts. He's forced stem cell research and against the gay marriage amendment. But maybe even worse, a lot of people mentioned that he talked to John Kerry about being on his ticket in 2004.

But, you know what? I think the distrust goes deeper than any single issue. Above all conservatives think John McCain has no use for them. That he goes out of his way to kind of stick his thumb in their eye. Today, he tried to address that too. He was very humble. He said, I cannot succeed without you. I cannot do it without your counsel and support. I will seek the counsel of my fellow conservatives. He came in a real position of humility to a group that feels that he has been arrogant to them.

NORRIS: Now, some polls show that John McCain could defeat Hillary Clinton in a one-on-one race if she were to become to the Democratic nominee. It seems like he starts quite a sense there. For him to do that, he presumably have to win over centrists and independent voters. How does he do that without then further alienating the conservatives?

LIASSON: Well, he already have support among independents that's why those polls show him defeating Hillary Clinton. He won the primary so far without the support of conservatives. He's done it by coupling together this coalition of moderates and independents. But I think he showed in a speech today how is he going to approach this problem. He's not going to change his position on the war. He's still going to be pro-life. For(ph) judges like Alito and Roberts - the same position on spending. But for instance, on immigration he now says he's going to secure the borders first. He's not backing off from supporting a pass to citizenship, but he's got a different order.

The problem for McCain is that he needs more than, let's say, 70 percent of Republicans to back him. George W, Bush got something like 96 percent of Republican votes. Even if he gets independent votes, he needs to consolidate and energize his base especially at a time when the Democrats are so energized and their base is going to be so consolidated.

He also needs an army of volunteers. You know, he talks about being a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution, he needs foot soldiers in his revolution. George Bush had an army of evangelicals working for him in 2004. and the question is, even if people will hold their nose and vote for John McCain - if there are conservatives, how many of them will come out and man the phone banks and actually work their tails off for him. That's what he needs to do.

NORRIS: And that's going to take more than one day of (unintelligible).


NORRIS: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Thank you so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.