Richard A. Viguerie, an old guard of the conservative movement, was on hand when McCain addressed the Council for National Policy, which drew conservative opinion leaders to New Orleans in early March.
Viguerie thinks the nation's 400 or 500 top conservative leaders are, for now, lukewarm about McCain. "He hasn't reached out to us. He's trying to get our support on the cheap," he says. "The feeling is...the next step is up to McCain. We're waiting to see if he's going to reach out."
Viguerie says conservatives are closely watching McCain's choice of a running mate. He says some of the prospects being mentioned—Govs. Charlie Crist of Florida and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, who led the Homeland Security Department—don't cut it among conservative influentials. Likewise, they're not warm to McCain's one-time rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whom Viguerie said "had a late conversion" to conservativism. But he declined to say who would pass muster for the veep's job.
Viguerie says he and a host of others were disappointed at McCain's remarks at the conservative gathering, saying McCain sidestepped a question on whether he would appoint conservatives to key positions in his administration. "Personnel is policy," he notes.
Viguerie also says there's concern about McCain's potential judicial picks, saying Supreme Court nominees in the mold of John Roberts and Samuel Alito were acceptable but there's concern that McCain would be unlikely to nominate judges who would dismantle his campaign-finance law.
When McCain was asked at the conservative meeting about his faith, he hearkened back to his years as a prisoner of war and spoke about the faith of one of his Vietnam captors but not his own. The bottom line: "With few exceptions, conservatives are sitting on the sidelines or totally unenthusiastic," says Viguerie, who has a website, conservativehq.com, and runs a political advertising and direct-mail firm that helped launch the modern conservative movement.
Conservatives won't vote Democratic, he believes, but they may not be inclined to rally fellow conservatives and instead roll up their sleeves in congressional races.
Should he capture the White House, McCain would bring a raft of legislative experience. But political scientist James Thurber of American University points out that House moderates are growing scarce and that it effectively takes 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate, so he doesn't expect consensus on major issues such as Iraq, immigration, and healthcare. "I don't see how he can reach over to the Democratic Party [while wooing] a very conservative Republican Party to get the winning coalition to pass these things."
Any new president has to worry about getting legislation passed, but for McCain, the challenge would be more difficult. He also has to worry about his old foes, some said to have long memories.