Second, he must reach out to conservatives. He must hold together President Reagan’s coalition if he wants to lead the Party of Reagan. Mr. McCain must engage conservative groups, leaders, and members in an open and friendly manner. Rudy Giuliani has done this already, winning over people like Pat Robertson. Mr. McCain must dispel notions that he is hostile to conservatives and opposed to their causes. He has to sit down with them to discuss specifics, and in so doing, show that he is willing to engage them.
And third, the best way to do this is to make judges and justices a campaign issue. The composition of the Supreme Court is the single most important issue to countless conservatives. If Mr. McCain does what Mr. Giuliani has done — publicly assembling advisors on judicial matters and taking a clear public stand on using the right criteria for judicial nominees — he can become substantially more acceptable to millions.
The critical element of these three things is that they are major factors for the GOP base, but do not move moderate voters either way. These energize the right without angering the center. And Mr. McCain is one of the few public figures who could pull this off because voters know they can trust him to keep his word.
It’s absolutely essential that Mr. McCain understands that these voters will not simply “get on the bus.” Hostilities run too deep for that. While millions of conservatives can be counted on to support the GOP nominee, literally millions more will sit out unless that nominee makes enough of a connection for those voters to say, “He’s one of us.”
Or rather, those voters just need to say, “He’s not one of them.” Part of Mr. McCain’s appeal is as a straight talker. Instead, he simply needs to be an acceptable alternative for committed conservatives. He just needs to leave them thinking — while they have their differences — he would make a good president by their standards.
Beyond that, it would be the icing on the cake to get conservative leaders like Governor Sanford of South Carolina to endorse Mr. McCain in the next couple of primaries. It’s not necessary for a win, but if Mr. McCain could start getting top conservative officials in these states to line up with him, it would be a great advantage.
The next couple of weeks will be interesting. If Mr. McCain makes the right moves, he could make the ultimate comeback.