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Yesterday, John McCain asked his foes on the right to "just calm down a little." He was talking about Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and other conservative big-mouths who in recent days have pumped up the volume of their anti-McCain crusade. Just the day before, James Dobson, a leading social conservative who heads Focus on the Family, declared, "I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative, and in fact has gone out of is way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are." (Last year, Dobson also accused Fred Thompson of not being a real Christian.)
As the Republican Establishment swings behind McCain--each day his campaign sends out several emails noting this or that endorsement from a GOP figure--the conservative ideologues are holding firm. This is setting up a dramatic split between the GOP elite and the conservative movement's leading influentials. The ideologues hate McCain for several reasons. He has pushed bipartisan, Democratic-backed legislation on campaign finance reform, global warming, and, worse, immigration reform. He never got on his knees before the conservatives--particularly the religious right. In 2000, he blasted Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson for exerting too much influence over his party. And--egads!--he has been a favorite of Washington journalists, that band of well-known, America-hating liberals. The fact that McCain has been a prominent champion of the Iraq war--the number one issue for most of his detractors--means nothing to these ingrates.
Today, McCain is appearing at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of hundreds, if not thousands, of rightwing activists. Imagine John Kerry speaking to a convention of Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth. (My colleague Jonathan Stein will have a report on McCain's appearance later.) But if McCain believes he can make nice with the rightwing talkers, he's kidding himself. This group--especially Limbaugh, Hannity, and Coulter--have no incentive to be pragmatic. They each earn much money by being provocative. Their first loyalty is to their audience, which expects hard-edged ideological warfare from them. They go soft--or reasonable--and they risk their reputations.
It's possible McCain could engage in an act of self-flagellation so extreme, his right-wing critics could claim victory and boast that he kissed their rings. But in the absence of such a move, they will keep pounding him. It makes good TV and radio. So if the Democrats are stuck with a months-long battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the GOP could have on its hand a never-ending cat-fight between its nominees and the spiritual leaders of the conservative movement. As of now, the conflict between Obama and Clinton has not gone so far that it cannot be resolved when that race is done. The McCain wars on the right could continue right up to Election Day.