Conservatives: Licking Their Wounds or Looking Ahead?

It's been more than a week since John McCain's big win on Super Tuesday and Mitt Romney's subsequent withdrawal from the primary during CPAC two days later. The successful Republican candidate needs 1,191 delegates to secure the nomination and, as of this writing, John McCain leads the remaining pack with 723. Mike Huckabee has earned 217 and Ron Paul trails with 16. Romney just endorsed McCain and released his delegates. Paul is still in for now, but says he plans to head back to Texas to drum up support for his House reelection bid should the presidential nomination fall through.

Despite his impressive speech at CPAC and equally impressive roster of endorsements, John McCain still has to convince core conservatives in the Republican Party of his sincerity and willingness to work with them. This includes Newt Gingrich, who told Laura Ingraham on Fox's O'Reilly Factor last Friday, "I don't think we should have this leader principle that whoever gets to be the head of the Republican Party, we should all salute. ... I'll reserve the right to oppose [McCain] on issues where I think he's fundamentally wrong."

What's interesting is that while intra-party rivalries are to be expected in any primary campaign, the rift in the Republican Party goes much deeper than "vote for the guy I prefer to win the nomination." Democrats, while they side with either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, are focused on winning the White House in November, no matter who goes on to run against the Republican.

The name of their game is often party over principle. In fact, back in 2004, Kerry was not the first choice for many Democrats, but they considered a vote for him to be a vote against George W. Bush -- holding your nose at the ballot box and all that.

Will Republicans en masse put principle over party in November? It's a valid question, seeing as on Super Tuesday there were 14 million votes cast by Democrats, compared to only 8 million by Republicans, indicating a crisis of conscience among the GOP. And core Republicans pride themselves on their support of certain principles, including limited government, pro-life, strong national defense, and the Second Amendment. While John McCain falls into line with many of these, a good number of conservatives think his willingness to "reach across the aisle" means more than simply working with Democrats on key issues -- it's working against Republicans. Charges of RINO (Republican in Name Only) are frequently uttered in the same sentence as McCain's name. The old "maverick" meme rears its ugly head yet again.

The resounding examples that come up frequently are McCain-Feingold, (failed) McCain-Kennedy, and McCain's vote against the Bush tax cuts several years ago.

To get a pulse on how Republicans from different parts of the country are viewing this growing chasm, I contacted a number of people I know and asked them to give me their two cents.

Ideally, a presidential candidate is supposed to embody the heart and soul of his party, but that's not how many voters see things this year. Kitty Myers of Painted Post, NY, is among those suffering from what I term RINOitis. "I feel so alienated from what was once the venerable GOP that this is the first year I've ever seriously considered not voting for a presidential candidate. I won't sit home, as I'll have other votes to cast, but I might not vote for a president. I won't decide until I'm actually in the voting booth facing our future."

Central Florida talk show host Andrea Shea-King is even more pessimistic: "I think this election is going to be a bloodbath for the Republicans. But the Democrats will fare no better. Barack (or Hillary) will destroy even further what is already beyond repair. Perhaps utterly. Interesting, isn't it, how both parties have become something unrecognizable to the old pols (think Zell Miller)."

Kitty and Andrea echo Rush Limbaugh's oft-repeated sentiments: "I'm a conservative first and a, quote, unquote, Republican second -- and party unity, at the expense of conservative principles and values, to me is not advancing things." And Bill Stephens, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, further clarified the situation when he said, "Our voters would rather stay home than vote for half a loaf of bread. They either want the whole loaf, or they'll wait for next time."

It's true that political statements can make one feel good, but they don't always have the desired effect. Consider that many Republicans "stayed home" in 2006, which resulted in a slim Democrat majority in both the Senate and House. But have officeholders learned their lesson? Looking at spending and a few other areas, I would venture to say "no." As Chuck Muth points out, Tom DeLay was largely responsible for Bush's Medicaid prescription drug bill passing, while McCain was one of only eight Republicans to vote against it.

It seems as though "backstabbers" come in many shapes and sizes.

Other Republicans take a more pragmatic view of the current situation. Kathy Brown of Connecticut cast her vote for McCain in the primary "because I think he's the most electable. He's the least polarizing of all the candidates, and so he's most likely to get things done." She added that he's "conservative enough."

You can count Tim Boswell of West Chester, PA, as being a realist as opposed to an idealist. He says, "Regardless of who the Republican nominee is I will be voting and I think everyone else should as well regardless of their party affiliation, primarily because how do we know who the republic wants as an elected official unless they cast their votes? Anyone who thinks that their vote doesn't count should be reminded of the Florida vote deciding between Al Gore and George W. Bush for POTUS in 2000. The final vote was decided by 537 votes."

Votes do count indeed, a timely lesson not only for Republicans, but for Democrats, Independents, and politicians.

Shawn Goodwin of Philadelphia, PA, takes it one step further and places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the candidates themselves. "Far too many conservatives are lamenting the fact that Thompson and Giuliani have dropped out of the race. Personally, I feel that if either of these men had any real interest in the presidency, they would have participated in every primary, instead of skipping Iowa, New Hampshire, and the like. Their lack of interest in playing the game has contributed to the lack of interest of conservatives in the 2008 election."

Only serious contenders need apply. Wouldn't that be refreshing?

So what's down the road? Mike Huckabee, who some thought had been staying in the race just to keep Mitt Romney from making more headway, not only won more states on Super Tuesday than pundits anticipated, but is himself slowly making headway in the polls. It may or may not be enough to put him over the top, but the message to Republicans should resonate loud and clear.

Remember how Ricky Ricardo always used to say in that exasperated voice, "Lucy, you got some 'splainin to to!" after one of Lucy's wild escapades? If RINOs wish to woo conservatives back -- conservatives needed if they want to retain the White House and win (or just hang onto) seats in November -- they'd better think about not just 'splainin, but keeping the lines of communication wide open. While pragmatists and moderate conservatives are busy looking ahead, too many party stalwarts are mad as hell, and they may not be ready to take any more.

Pam Meister is the editor of FamilySecurityMatters.org (the opinions she expresses here are her own), and her work has also been featured on American Thinker.