With John McCain racking up delegates on a steady march toward the Republican presidential nomination, deeply conservative voters are at a loss.
They don't like McCain. They've tried, and failed, to stop him. So it was with growing frustration, and an unaccustomed sense of impotence, that many conservatives surveyed the electoral map Wednesday.
"We're in a political dilemma, as well as a personal dilemma," said Jessica Echard, executive director of the conservative advocacy group Eagle Forum. "What will we do? What can be done?"
Sit out in November? Unite behind McCain? Pressure the Arizona senator to change his policies? Demand a specific running mate? The debate, often biting, has consumed online forums, talk radio and conservative groups.
Behind it all, a key question looms: Will conservative Republicans be selling out if they back McCain -- or if they don't?
"I keep hearing that we need to be loyal Republicans and support McCain if he becomes our candidate, but I question why we should have to be more loyal to the party than McCain has [been]," a caller told right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh.
He interrupted her with enthusiasm: "That is brilliant! That is brilliant!"
Other radio hosts have taken to calling the Republican front-runner McLame, McVain or McAmnesty, a barb about his support for a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants in the country.
On her show Wednesday, talk-show host Laura Ingraham played a clip of McCain saying he respects his Democratic rivals, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. "Oh, great," Ingraham interjected with sarcasm. "You're not going after Hillary for being a big fat phony?"
Later, she spoke over other McCain audio clips: "Oh, come on!" or "He's lying!"
Conservative disdain for McCain runs deep, mostly because of his stand on illegal immigration. Other black marks: He voted against President Bush's major tax cuts, though now he supports making them permanent. He opposes a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. And he's not only willing, but expresses an eagerness, to work with Democrats in Congress.
"I don't want to reach out to them. I want to defeat their agenda," one caller told Limbaugh.
"Amen, bro," the host responded. "Amen."
Off the airwaves, Republican voters expressed similar resentment of McCain.
"He'll go as far left as he can. He's two-faced," Larry Duke, 51, said over lunch in Colorado Springs, a city at the center of the conservative Christian movement.
A leading evangelical in Colorado Springs, Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, tried his best this week to stop McCain's momentum by announcing -- on Ingraham's show -- that he would rather sit out the election than vote for McCain.
The anti-endorsement and similar remarks by conservative columnist Ann Coulter didn't stop McCain from notching victories Tuesday in New York, California and seven other states. McCain held his own among born-again Christians, one of Dobson's key constituencies.
But exit polls exposed his lack of support from the far right -- a weakness that alarms many Republicans.
"I'm worried we'll lose our base," said Adam Saffer, 20, a student at the University of Colorado campus here. "I can see him splitting the party."
In state after state, McCain ran well among voters who described themselves as "somewhat conservative" but poorly among "very conservative" voters. In California, for instance, he took 45% of the "somewhat" crowd but 21% of the "very conservative" voters.
To help close that gap, McCain asked right-wing radio hosts to quit tearing into him. One of his longtime adversaries, Hugh Hewitt, complied, telling his listeners Wednesday that it was time to accept their likely nominee. That left a caller from Colorado confused: "Today it's like a McCain love-in," she protested.
Even with other radio hosts still fanning the anti-McCain fire, analyst Joe Sullivan predicted that acceptance would spread as the general election approached.
"If Hillary is the nominee, you'll see Republicans come together so fast, you won't have time to spit," said Sullivan, editor of the Southeast Missourian, which covers a conservative rural region.
Voters hoping for reassurance about a McCain candidacy will be listening closely to his speech today at a major conference of conservatives in Washington.
"He'll have no problem convincing me to pull the lever in order to stop [the Democrats], but I still hold out hopes of being excited again," wrote Mark Kilmer, a regular commentator on the popular conservative website Redstate.
That drew a rebuke from a reader who vowed to write in the name of an acceptable conservative rather than mark a ballot for McCain: "I will NOT vote for a democrat or a FAKE democrat. I will be true to my values."
Though the discontent runs deep, even veteran activists wonder how to translate it into action.
"It's a quandary," said Tom Minnery, a senior vice president with the political arm of Focus on the Family.
"Sometimes we have to go off into the wilderness and regroup," Ingraham told listeners.
Campaigning for a McCain rival would seem an obvious tactic, but radio show calls and blog posts were largely quiet on that point. McCain has amassed nearly 60% of the delegates needed for the nomination, and even his harshest critics said it was tough to imagine that any other candidate could prevail.
There were no cries, either, to promote a third-party candidate. Last summer, several conservatives -- including Dobson -- floated that idea, but it's now widely seen as hopeless.
"There's a feeling of exhaustion," said Jed Babbin, editor of the conservative journal Human Events. But he said he was confident spirits would revive with time. "We're not going to sit down and be quiet," he said. "That's not our nature."
Babbin said he intended to launch a campaign of letter writing and speaking out at public forums to pressure McCain to pick a running mate acceptable to the most conservative wing of the party. Other bloggers intend to ask McCain to name his potential Cabinet -- and stock it with political heavyweights from the right.
Some would like McCain to offer the vice presidency to Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and a former Southern Baptist preacher who is still campaigning for the nomination after winning five states Tuesday.
Babbin, though, said Huckabee wasn't conservative enough because he approved a tax increase in Arkansas and he talked often about the need to fight global warming.
"If [McCain] chooses a real, no-kidding, gut-level conservative to be vice president -- and frankly, I'm not sure who that would be -- he'd bring a lot of his harshest critics around," Babbin said.
Then, abruptly, his upbeat tone faded. "It's not quite hopeless," he said, "but . . ."
Correll reported from Colorado Springs, Simon from Denver. Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.