McCain picks up a conservative endorsement

February 11, 2008 5:44:39 PM PST
Republican John McCain challenged the notion he is struggling to rally conservative critics as he picked up the endorsement Monday of evangelical leader Gary Bauer.

"We're doing fine. We're doing fine," McCain told reporters in Annapolis, dismissing the notion that losses in two states on Saturday had hurt his campaign.

McCain lost in Kansas and Louisiana on Saturday to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, although he won narrowly in Washington state. The Arizona senator is all but assured his party nod after rolling up huge numbers of delegates, 719, to the national convention. Huckabee has 234.

"We have close to 800 delegates. Last time I checked, Governor Huckabee had very few, so I think I'm happy with the situation I'm in," McCain said. "I'm quite pleased, recognizing that we have a lot of work to do."

He also won the endorsement Monday of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother.

The endorsement from Bauer, a leading conservative voice, came at a critical time as McCain shifts to campaigning as the Republican nominee-in-waiting. McCain's emphasis since last week, when chief rival Mitt Romney exited the race, has been on reaching out to conservative critics in an effort to unite the party.

In an interview, Bauer noted McCain's strength with independent-minded voters but added, "he's also going to need every last one of the conservative activists."

"My endorsement, at least in part, was done because I hope I can facilitate the reconciliation there and help unite conservatives going into what is going to be an extraordinarily important election," Bauer said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Bauer was the latest of several conservatives to sign on, but McCain still faces outspoken opposition from some foes, including talk radio host Rush Limbaugh who had threatened to boycott a race in which McCain is the nominee. Some on the party's right flank distrust McCain's sometimes moderate positions and his willingness to work with Democrats in Congress.

Bauer said McCain would go a long way toward reconciling with his critics by emphasizing his opposition to abortion and his support - not at the federal level, but at the state level in Arizona - for a ban on gay marriage.

"For any pro-life voter, the difference between John McCain and Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would be huge on the life issue," Bauer said.

Bauer, former head of the Family Research Council and founder of the Campaign for Working Families, unsuccessfully sought the GOP presidential nomination in 2000. He is a well-known abortion opponent who said in a statement that McCain "has dedicated his life to defending human rights around the world, including the rights of the unborn."

While he is well-known, Bauer lacks the following of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who declared on Super Tuesday he would never vote for McCain and later endorsed Huckabee.

Huckabee, too, is known for opposing abortion rights.

In fact, he and McCain were tied among conservatives in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Monday.

The poll showed McCain with support from 38 percent of self-described conservatives nationally, compared with 35 percent for Huckabee. Fourteen percent of conservatives were still undecided or didn't back any candidate.

In Annapolis, McCain chuckled at a question about why people persist in voting for Huckabee despite McCain's lock on the nomination.

"Because they like him," McCain said. "I never expected a unanimous vote, although I would certainly like to have that. But I think we'll continue to win primaries across the country, including tomorrow.

"I hope that we'll do well here. I have great confidence that we will, both here and in Virginia and in the District of Columbia," McCain said.

Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., vote on their choice for party nominee on Tuesday. McCain was campaigning later Monday in Richmond, Va.

McCain acknowledged he has had trouble performing well in states that hold caucuses instead of primary elections. He said the kind of organization needed to win caucuses would have taken money he hasn't had. He noted some of the big states voting next - Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania - are holding primary elections, not caucuses.

"We'll continue to work hard, particularly now that we've got enough funds to organize," McCain said.

McCain said it is Huckabee's right to challenge the results in Washington state. Huckabee advisers are protesting that the state GOP called the race too quickly for McCain.

"I think it's pretty clear that we won," McCain said at the news conference. "He obviously has the right to challenge if he chooses to. But I honestly don't know enough about the details, except I know that state parties decide elections when they have sufficient evidence as to who has won and who has lost. That's not unusual in any way."

AP Religion Writer Eric Gorski in Denver contributed to this report.