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McCain Works to Mend Long-Standing Rifts With Conservatives


Senator John McCain of Arizona will formally accept the Republican Party's presidential nomination at their national convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Thursday. John McCain has not always been a favorite of conservative Republicans, but most appear to be rallying behind him now, as he prepares for the general election campaign against the Democratic candidate, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has more from St. Paul.

Republicans have long admired John McCain as a true American hero - a man who survived torture and repeated beatings while in captivity during the Vietnam War.

"I have always put my country first, and I will always do that," said John McCain.

But conservative Republicans have also had their share of battles with McCain over the years - whether it was his initial opposition to the Bush administration tax cuts or his support for a comprehensive solution to illegal immigration.

Mike Gallagher is a conservative radio talk show host who is anchoring his program this week from the Republican National Convention.

"There are two issues that a lot of us conservatives worry about with John McCain - illegal immigration and his penchant for reaching out to the global warming, the 'earth is on fire crowd.' Those are the two big ones for us," said Mike Gallagher.

McCain's decision to change his position on the Bush tax cuts has pleased economic conservatives like Grover Norquist, who heads an anti-tax group that has a lot of support from conservative Republicans.

"He had a couple of positions that were unhelpful, I think, bad for the country, but certainly unhelpful for his relationship with the Republican Party," said Grover Norquist. "On the other hand, that is spilled milk, that is water under the bridge, over the dam, that is done. As mistaken as it was, he is not trying to do more of it."

McCain's relations with social conservatives have also been strained over the years. In the past, he has referred to some religious conservatives as "agents of intolerance" and called into question their influence within the Republican Party.

Former Texas Congressman Tom DeLay had his share of clashes with McCain when DeLay was the Republican leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But DeLay says McCain's decision to pick Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate won him over.

"As a conservative, as I approached whether I was going to vote for John McCain, it was very difficult for me, because I disagree with him on so many issues," said Tom DeLay. "But when I look at the alternative, Barack Obama, it made it a little easier. I am going to vote for John McCain. And then picking Governor Palin just sealed it for me."

Palin's strong record as a social conservative opposed to abortion and in favor of gun ownership rights and traditional marriage has excited conservative activists throughout the Republican Party.

This is former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania:

"Well, look, John McCain has taken a step toward us," said Rick Santorum. "I believe that people are policy in an administration. You know, who you put in as secretary of this or ambassador to this has a huge impact on the policy that comes out of your administration. And the fact that he picked Sarah Palin gives me some confidence that he is going to surround himself with some good people."

Washington-based political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says it is important for McCain to mend fences with conservatives in his party as he prepares for the general election campaign against Democrat Barack Obama.

"Well, I do not think they have personally given him a big hug and a big kiss," said Stuart Rothenberg. "But I think that, over the past few days, they have - because of the Palin selection and because of his rhetoric over the past few months - they have become comfortable with them. So is he now their Number One choice? Are they really 'McCainiacs' [pro McCain]? No. But they have reached a comfort factor that it is important for them and important for him."

Social conservatives, and especially religious voters, were a major factor in President Bush's election victories in 2000 and 2004. Republican strategists say one of McCain's challenges will be getting a similar turnout of religious conservatives this year.

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