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Republican Presidential Frontrunner John McCain Judged on Conservatism

Now that the race for the Republican presidential nomination has narrowed to two main candidates, Republican voters are questioning whether the frontrunner embraces enough of the party's conservative standards. Arizona Senator John McCain has angered conservatives in the past with his congressional votes. VOAs Carolyn Presutti takes a look at both sides.

Political experts say these people are the core of the American Republican Party: conservatives.

They embrace low taxes, traditional values, a strong military, untethered campaign spending and strong immigration laws. Every year, about 6,000 of them attend the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Enter Senator John McCain, the Republican frontrunner. Conservatives agree: he is Republican and that he is the frontrunner. But many say he is not a true conservative. Thus, the McCain conservative dilemma.

"He cannot go into the general election without conservatives not really caring whether he wins or loses," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

McCain entered politics in 1981, during the Reagan years. Conservatives view President Ronald Reagan as their standard-bearer -- the ideal conservative politician.

"I am proud, very proud, to have come to public office as a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution," McCain said to the conference.

But some conservative radio talk show hosts, such as Laura Ingraham, question that claim. She says, "I do not think it is enough to say that you were a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution. I think the question is, 'What have you been doing for conservatism lately?"

Lately, Senator McCain has been trying to shed his reputation as a political maverick, a politician who has been willing to break with conservative Republican orthodoxy on certain issues.

In 2002, Congress passed a bill co-sponsored by McCain that limited campaign spending. The law still angers conservatives who claim it empowers lobbyists to contribute millions to political campaigns.

Greg Walcher says his vote for president is tied to that belief. "Clearly that has not worked. It has made it easier for rich people to hide their money in campaigns through these other organizations. He ought to be able to say, this is what we tried to do. It did not work. It is time to fix it."

Ann Scott wants to hear McCain back-off from his position on a different issue. "I'm going to secure the border and then we are going to deal with the illegal immigrants who are here," she wants him to say.

But just the mention of immigration got this response from the conservatives. McCain started to make his point, "On the issue of illegal immigration, a position which...." [interrupted by boos]

Earlier this year McCain supported a bill that would eventually allow citizenship for many of the country's 12 million illegal immigrants. But before the convention of conservatives, he seemed to backtrack. He said, "I and other Republican supporters of the bill were genuine in our intention to restore control of our borders. We failed. I accept that. And I have pledged that it would be among my highest priorities to secure our borders first."

Younger voters seem to appreciate McCain's ability to reach out to the opposition.

Voter Jake Wilson from Dayton, Ohio says, "At least John McCain is willing to work across the aisle and make compromise."

But that premise again infuriates conservative radio talk show hosts, like Rush Limbaugh. "When did the measure of conservatism become: reaching out to Democrats?" Limbaugh asked.

"We do want, and I think deserve, a candidate who is proud to be a conservative and who embodies conservative ideals. Is that too much to ask?" asked Ingraham.

McCain said to the conference, "I am proud to be a conservative."

No one knows if McCain will change any minds. Then again, he has some time to do that. It is only February -- and there are nine more months until the general election.