WASHINGTON Conservatives are nearly resigned to seeing front-runner John McCain capture the Republican presidential nomination, but they are still debating whether to stay home in November or to try to influence his positions and choice of a running mate.
The Arizona senator, who has a long history of disputes over economic and social issues with his party's right flank, is beginning to reach out to those critics now that Super Tuesday voting has given him a commanding lead in the race for delegates and his chief rival, Mitt Romney, suspended his campaign
"He's got nine months to give birth to a conservative support group," said Cleta Mitchell, chairman of the American Conservative Union Foundation.
Mitchell spoke as party activists gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference where McCain was pitching his candidacy to a skeptical audience in a Thursday afternoon speech.
McCain planned to tell the group he cannot succeed without their support and any differences within the GOP are eclipsed by his differences with Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
"It is my sincere hope that, even if you believe I have occasionally erred in my reasoning as a fellow conservative, you will still allow that I have, in many ways important to all of us, maintained the record of a conservative," McCain said in his prepared remarks.
The day before, a leading Christian conservative revealed that McCain had personally reached out to him.
The Rev. Jonathan Falwell son of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell who made the religious right a political force when he helped found the Moral Majority in 1979 said Wednesday that he had a telephone talk with McCain within the past 24 hours. Falwell, who succeeded his father as pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., said he wasn't ready to endorse a candidate but wanted to hear more from the Arizona senator on the issues.
"I look forward to seeing what McCain's plan is to unite the party," Falwell said, "and to see what he has to say in the coming days on the social agenda." He also expressed interest in hearing more from McCain on national security, the economy, Supreme Court nominees, and "how to protect human life and traditional marriage."
McCain's outreach to conservatives comes after he has garnered nearly 60 percent of the delegates needed for nomination. Although he hasn't locked up the nomination, he's won more delegates than rivals Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul combined.
As a result, conservatives angered over McCain's stands on immigration, campaign finance and President Bush's tax cuts are talking less about stopping McCain and have begun to discuss whether they can influence his positions or his selection of a running mate.
For McCain, the challenge is to sound a unifying theme without appearing too malleable or swayed by political convenience. McCain recognizes that tacking to the right could hurt his support among independents and moderates that have helped him get this far.
"I'm aware there's a very fine line between inspiring in unity and pandering," McCain said Wednesday. "You know, you've got to present it in the right way, of course."
Mitchell is one who does not expect McCain to undergo a transformation.
"He's 70,000 years old, he's not going to change," she said.
Right now she is not supporting any of the Republican candidates in the field. If not satisfied by Nov. 7, she said, she may well sit the election out.
"It's a very American privilege not to vote," she said.
For some conservatives, McCain's emergence is a sign that the Republican Party is abandoning conservatives.
"The Republican Party has left the moral conservative base adrift," said Jerome Corsi, a conservative activist and co-author of "Unfit for Command," a book that attacked 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's Vietnam service.
"If the Republican Party doesn't come to its senses soon, I think there will be a lot of sitting out or discussion about a third party being formed or supported," Corsi said.