The McCain Quandary

As the Conservative Political Action Conference convenes today in Washington, the Right Wing is in a rut, divided over the Republican presidential candidates. CPAC is always a time when the “conservative movement” pays homage to Ronald Reagan, who spoke at the event 12 times since 1974; last year, candidates fell over themselves to see who could invoke Reagan’s name the most, even as graying activists warned of a decline in adherence to Reaganology.

The focus this year will be on John McCain, who managed to defy a number of talk radio hosts and emerge the frontrunner in last night’s elections. McCain had to pull out from last year’s CPAC in the face of a hostile reception, but he’s spent the interim brown-nosing the far right, and it’s no surprise that this time he’s planning to drum up late support by emphasizing his right-wing credentials and channeling the Reagan spirit: Human Events editor Jed Babbin reports that “McCain has prepared a video featuring President Ronald Reagan to make the introduction.”

Babbin warns that this would “backfire”:

Very few of the 2008 CPAC crowd will see McCain as the successor to Reagan and Reagan’s principles.  McCain has sacrificed conservatives’ fundamental beliefs throughout his Senate career.  If McCain uses this introduction, the boos will be very loud.

McCain faces a real quandary.  If he fails at CPAC — and doesn’t win the CPAC straw poll (he finished dead last in 2007) — the word will be out that the conservatives are off his team this year. 

But at this point, given the likelihood that McCain will win the Republican nomination, it’s the CPAC crowd that faces the quandary: If they pan him again, but GOP voters select him anyway, then what kind of influence do these activists really have?

Which is why, even as James Dobson and Rick Santorum double down against McCain, some of the Right’s leaders are signaling they will be a lot more accommodating. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention predicts evangelicals will fall in line, and Gary Bauer praises McCain’s faith-oriented campaign. Richard Viguerie, who has been highly critical of everybody, even leaves the door open a crack for reconciliation.

Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee is also defending McCain, saying, “Some people need to switch to decaf and realize, folks, we may not get all of our battles just like we want, but there’s a larger context in which this has to be fought.” (For Huckabee, it seems like that context is vice president.)

It remains to be seen whether the CPAC attendees will buy this line of argument. In the mean time, the Right seems about as disoriented as these young activists at Mitt Romney’s Super Tuesday party:

Only a few Sam Adams-sipping College Republicans went slightly off message. “I’m scared,” one confessed. “I don’t think I could vote for John McCain.” “We bet on the wrong guy in the Huckabee-Brownback feud,” another said after Huckabee was projected the winner in another Southern state. “Wait, you’re not a reporter, are you?”