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John McCain already moves to mollify the GOP right

February 5, 2008 |  6:54 am

Former Sen. Bob Dole, who knows a thing or three about losing elections to the Clintons, has some advice for conservative radio talk show impresario Rush Limbaugh, who's been loudly complaining about John McCain for weeks.

Dole, the GOP candidate who got erased in the 1996 election by Bill Clinton, is trying to calm down the prominent conservative who's threatening party unity with his outspoken on-air opposition to the not-so-conservative McCain, as he appears to zero in on the Republican nomination, which could be decided as early as today.

In a personal letter to Limbaugh released by the McCain campaign, Dole wisely first stroked the conservative broadcaster's broad ego, then proceeded ...

to support McCain as a true conservative. "I have not seen you in a long time," Dole wrote, "but I do hear you frequently and I know that you have serious reservations about Senator McCain."

"I worked closely with Senator McCain when he came to the Senate in 1987," Dole wrote, "until I departed (in 1996). I cannot recall a single instance when he did not support the Party on critical votes. (At my age, I cannot be entirely certain but here are a few key conservative examples:)"

Dole then lists nine major issues McCain supported. He provides some statistics showing McCain sometimes actually supported Republican presidents more and opposed Bill Clinton more than even Sen. Jesse Helms.

"I disagree with his votes against the Bush tax cuts," Dole adds, "but I believe his pledge to make them permanent and I do not agree that Governor Romney ever suggested a timetable for troop withdrawals in Iraq."

Dole notes that he wore a bracelet with McCain's name during the Arizonan's POW years. And he closes with, "Whoever wins the Republican nomination will need your enthusiastic support. Two terms for the Clintons are enough."

The problem for the GOP's conservative wing represented vocally by Limbaugh is that it dithered throughout 2007 awaiting the Second Coming of a Ronald Reagan, who would embody a perfect conservative fiscal, social and economic candidate. Fred Thompson flamed out with his four-hour workdays. Sam Brownback, Tommy Thompson and Jim Gilmore had the collective charisma of a corpse and got no political traction.

Rudy Giuliani, the hero of 9/11, waited too long to show his stuff and then didn't have any. And Mitt Romney sounds like a genuine conservative convert now but the images of those liberal-looking YouTube videos from the 1990s linger.

Certainly, part of the blame for the party's situation falls on President Bush, who didn't help prepare a successor. He was comfortable sticking with Dick Cheney as his vice president for the second term, when he could have picked a new one in 2004 and given that VP four years to become the obvious inheritor.

Last summer there seemed no hurry for the conservatives to line up behind a favorite. McCain was clearly dead and nearly buried. But the oldest major candidate, the one who had the grit to endure some 2,000 days of solitary POW confinement and then did exactly what he said he could, he out-campaigned everyone else. Suddenly, McCain won New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.

So how to unite the party behind the maverick who caused McCain-Feingold, voted against the Bush tax cuts twice, opposes Guantanamo and torture because he knows it firsthand and can't raise his arms because of it, then pushed that immigration reform that got labeled amnesty last spring?

Romney started looking better to the conservatives, but this other guy from Hope, Ark., Mike Huckabee, keeps hanging around to siphon votes from Romney and help McCain, who will need a non-Washington running mate in a few months. Maybe a Southern governor from somewhere like, oh, say Arkansas. Or Florida.

Soon, the question may be, how does McCain molify the right of his party without alienating the moderates and independents he's going to need in the general election? The letter to Rush is the start.

But first comes today's voting. Romney's fortunes in California will determine a lot. It may, in fact, be too late for the conservatives to halt the moderate McCain.

Republicans -- and the rest of us -- may know by tonight.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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