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Romney out: Will conservatives move to McCain?

The house that Reagan built shows cracks, as the far right chafes at McCain as GOP standard-bearer.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 8, 2008

GOP: Sen. John McCain (2nd. r.), answers a question during a Republican presidential debate at the Ronad Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (far l.), Rep. Ron Paul (2nd. l.), and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also participated. There is talk of a watershed reconfiguration of the Reagan coalition within the Republican Party.

Mark Terrill/AP

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New York

The decision by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to suspend his campaign brings into sharper light the challenges faced by the presumed nominee, maverick Arizona senator John McCain.

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His political resurrection and new status as front-runner has fueled talk of a watershed transformation within the Republican Party: a reconfiguration of the Reagan coalition.

That marriage of fiscal conservatives, the Christian right, and defense hawks has powered the GOP for the past 30 years, despite growing internal strains such as clashes between Western libertarians and Southern Evangelicals. But nothing has brought them more to the fore than the rise of the straight-talking, sometimes-brusque Republican senator from Arizona, whose place as presidential nominee was virtually assured Thursday after Mr. Romney's announcement.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Romney gave his reasons for abandoning his nomination quest.

"If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win," he says. "And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."

With that rather qualified endorsement from Romney, Senator McCain went on to address the annual meeting of conservative leaders with confidence and humility, analysts say. He insisted that he will govern with conservative principles – even acknowledging that he can't win without conservative support. But in true McCain fashion, he did not apologize for past stances that angered other conservatives.

"Many of you have disagreed strongly with some positions I have taken in recent years – I understand that. I might not agree with it, but I respect it for the principled position that it is," he told a cheering crowd that then became hushed. "It is my sincere hope that even if you believe that I have occasionally erred in my reasoning as a fellow conservative, you will still allow that I have ... maintained the record of a conservative."

Some conservative commentators, including Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, have been adamantly opposed to mending fences with McCain. They see in him a liberal traitor who backs causes that are anathema to conservatives – such as embryonic stem-cell research and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. A McCain presidency, they argue, would tear apart the underpinnings of the house that Reagan built. Ms. Coulter has even advocated a protest vote for Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton over McCain.