PHOENIX - John McCain, who was the only major Republican presidential hopeful who failed to speak to last year's Conservative Political Action Conference, will address this year's gathering today in Washington with a clear agenda: Mending fences with his increasingly vituperative conservative critics.
McCain takes the podium in a stronger position than last year: As a candidate who has yet to successfully rally key elements of the conservative coalition but is nonetheless on the cusp of winning the Republican presidential nomination.
"It's important," McCain strategist Charlie Black said of the speech. "It's just part of the process of consolidating conservative support. It's not at the level of an acceptance speech at the [Republican] convention."
Aides had anticipated that the occasion would offer McCain his first valedictory address after securing his party's nomination, an outcome McCain had said he expected following Tuesday's primaries across the country. Scattered victories that night by both Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, however, have renewed the contest for at least a few weeks more.
As a result, McCain will address the group without some of the leverage he would have carried if Tuesday's results had confirmed him as the Republicans' presumptive nominee: McCain still needs support from conservatives in upcoming primaries, particularly as he now battles off challenges from two candidates angling to find space to his right.
"I do hope that at some point we would just calm down a little bit and see if there's areas we can agree on," McCain said of his conservative critics at a press conference in Phoenix yesterday.
While prominent economic and social conservatives have slowly moved to McCain's side as his hold on the nomination has become more assured, he still faces some resistance from those who have seen his challenges to party orthodoxy on a range of issues, from campaign-finance reform to taxes and the environment, as a form of left-leaning betrayal.
"I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative, and in fact has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are," said James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, in a statement this week.
The loudest criticism has come from commentators like Rush Limbaugh, who has devoted much of his recent airtime to arguing that McCain's nomination would destroy the Republican Party, and Ann Coulter, who said last week that she would support Hillary Clinton over McCain if the two faced off in the general election.
"I've never met Ann Coulter," McCain said on Monday while campaigning in New Jersey. "I've never met Rush Limbaugh."
McCain yesterday shrugged off a suggestion to reach out directly to those leaders and critics in an effort to assuage their concerns. Instead he said that today's high-profile speech at CPAC, an offshoot of the American Conservative Union, would present him a venue to speak to the conservative movement more broadly.
"I think I can convey my message to all of the party and do it through organizations such as CPAC," McCain said.
McCain advisers said they expect the candidate to emphasize his conservative record on social, economic, and national-security issues and draw attention to the role that former president Ronald Reagan played in his political maturation. They said they did not anticipate that he would make new assurances to movement leaders about how he would govern.
"I think some people want to own the word 'conservative,' " said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a prominent McCain supporter who has also faced criticism within the party for his positions on certain issues. "What I think he should do is what he's done his whole life: Tell people who he is and what he believes."