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Potholes in campaign trail

Times Staff Writers

John McCain, fresh from piling up a commanding lead over his two main Republican presidential rivals in this week’s cross-country primaries and caucuses, now faces the daunting task of closing the rifts within the GOP while trying to defeat his more conservative rivals.

Regarded with suspicion by many Republicans for his stands on taxes, immigration and other issues, McCain will face a hotel ballroom full of skeptics today when he addresses a major convention of conservative activists in Washington.

He will follow presidential rival Mitt Romney, who has tried to parlay conservative criticism of McCain into support for his own White House bid. But Romney came up short in most of the 21 GOP state contests Tuesday and found himself competing with Mike Huckabee for the mantle of conservatives’ alternative to McCain.

Acknowledging the fire from the right, McCain said Wednesday that critics should “calm down” and close ranks for the good of the party.

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“We will unite the party behind our conservative principles and move forward and win the general election,” the Arizona senator said in Phoenix.

Huckabee and Romney huddled with their advisors Wednesday to determine the next step in a campaign in which it is nearly impossible for them to gain the 1,191 delegates needed for the nomination.

According to the Associated Press, nearly complete delegate returns after Tuesday’s voting left McCain with 707 delegates, nearly 60% of the delegates needed. Romney had 294, Huckabee had 195 and Texas Rep. Ron Paul had 14.

Undeterred, Dick Dresner, a senior advisor to Huckabee, said McCain’s rivals still have a chance to shape the direction of the party by continuing their campaigns. “It’s in both of their interests to keep going, show the strength of the conservative wing of the party,” Dresner said.

McCain was not taking anything for granted. He canceled a prospective end-of-the-week trip to Munich, Germany, for a security policy conference. His campaign aired a hard-hitting ad against Romney in Virginia. And he is planning to campaign there and in Kansas, Washington state and Maryland, which are hosting contests over the next week.

But first McCain will face what one conservative called the “activist primary” when he addresses the 6,000 people who are traveling to Washington for today’s kickoff of the three-day convention of the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“The feelings among many conservatives about him, and on his part about them, are long and deep, and he needs to do something to patch all that up before he goes into the general election,” said David A. Keene, a Romney supporter who heads the American Conservative Union.

Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, said McCain’s task is not just to reassure conservatives but to fire them up to put energy into his election.

“These are people who live, breathe and eat politics,” said Norquist. “Will they walk out of the room saying ‘I will spend the next several months of my life getting this guy elected’ or ‘I think I’ll play tennis this summer’?”

His appearance at the conference is a measure of how far McCain has traveled over the last year to smooth some of the edges of his political profile. In 2007, McCain spurned an invitation to address the conference. When the group held a presidential poll, McCain came in last among five candidates. His name was booed.

Many conservatives mistrust McCain because he initially voted against President Bush’s tax cuts, has an environmentalist streak and has advocated an immigration bill that would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He infuriated Christian conservatives during the 2000 presidential campaign with harsh criticism of some evangelical leaders, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

He has tried to burnish his conservative credentials by retreating from his immigration initiative and instead stressing border security. He now supports extending Bush’s tax cuts and has promised to veto any tax increase. He traveled to Falwell’s university to give a commencement speech.

Not everyone is buying the conversion. Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson recently made scathing remarks about McCain, saying he “has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes” of conservatives.

Romney on the stump accuses McCain of leading in a “liberal Democratic direction.”

After the conservative convention, attention turns to the states that will host the next important primaries and caucuses, including Virginia and Maryland on Tuesday, through contests in Ohio and Texas on March 4.

Romney’s aides continued to insist that he would remain in the race, even as they huddled all day in his Boston headquarters. Tom D. Rath, a senior Romney aide, said he believed Romney was willing to put in more of his personal fortune to finance the effort.

“He will do it if he remains convinced that there is a path where he can win,” Rath said. Romney is looking ahead to primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where voters share the economic concerns that helped Romney win Michigan.

Some supporters are furious that Huckabee is remaining in the race, believing he siphons off conservative voters who otherwise would vote for Romney.

But Arnold Steinberg, a California Republican strategist not aligned in the presidential race, said it was a myth that Huckabee was blocking Romney from consolidating conservative support.

He pointed to polls showing that many white evangelicals -- the core of Huckabee’s support -- would not vote for a Mormon.

“This idea that someone who’s a Mormon from Massachusetts who’s suspect on social issues is going to get the Huckabee vote if he were to drop out is just wrong,” Steinberg said.

Huckabee aides acknowledged that he had slim prospects to win the nomination. But continuing the fight could help position him for a future run in a party that tends to reward candidates, including McCain and Ronald Reagan, for multiple efforts.

Dresner denied that Huckabee was positioning himself to be vice president on a McCain ticket but said he would consider it if it were offered.

“He’s running for the outside possibility that he could win,” said Dresner. “He’s running really to enhance his own reputation. He’s a young man.”

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janet.hook@latimes.com

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Hook and Finnegan reported from Washington and Mehta from Boston. Times staff writers Maeve Reston in Phoenix and Dan Morain in Sacramento contributed to this report.


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