WASHINGTON – GOP front-runner John McCain will try to win the support of his party's right wing during a conservative conference starting Thursday.
The three-day Conservative Political Action Committee conference will bring together McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Ron Paul to try to convince the crowd that they are the candidate for conservative voters. The conference boasts to be the country's largest annual gathering of conservative activists, students and policymakers.
"Our message will be that we all share common principles, common conservative principles, and we should coalesce around those issues," the Arizona senator said Wednesday, according to CNN.
So far in the presidential race, McCain has relied heavily on the support of moderates and liberal Republicans, as well as independent voters to win states. His icy relationship with conservatives stems from several issues, including lashing out at Christian right leaders in 2000, backing the bipartisan immigration reform policy, opposing the Bush tax cuts, and co-sponsoring legislation on campaign finance reform.
The conference will give McCain an opportunity to warm up the conservative crowd to his candidacy. Following Super Tuesday, several conservative leaders have vowed to either not vote or vote for a Democratic candidate if McCain becomes the party's nominee.
"McCain has so radicalized key conservatives that some have vowed to turn themselves into suicide voters next November by pulling the lever for Hillary Clinton," said conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, according to CNN.
Only 49 percent of Tuesday's voters who said they voted for McCain described themselves as conservative, while about 80 percent of Romney voters and 75 percent of Huckabee voters described themselves as such, initial exit polls showed.
But McCain, who's largely seen as a moderate working with both Democrats and Republicans, calls for reconciliation.
"I do hope that at some point we would just calm down a little bit and see if there's areas that we can agree on for the good of the party and the good of the country," he said.
After Tuesday's contests, McCain has more than half of the number of delegates needed for the nomination with 714 delegates. Meanwhile, other Republicans trail behind: Romney with only 286 and Huckabee, 181.
On Thursday, however, Romney bowed out of the presidential race. He announced that he will suspend his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, explaining that he wanted to step aside so a Republican can be president and continue the fight against terrorism worldwide.
"In this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror," the former Massachusetts governor said at the conference Thursday afternoon. "This is not an easy decision. I hate to lose."
Romney's withdrawal leaves McCain as an even stronger front-runner. And as McCain is expected to reach out to Romney's supporters, he must now grapple with how to unite his party.
"He's (McCain) a conservative, he's been a conservative for a long time, but on occasion he departs from the conservative orthodoxy," commented CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider.
"He is now advertising his ability to make bipartisan deals on issues because that's what voters seem to want this year," he added.
But McCain is optimistic that he can bring conservatives aboard his campaign and unite the party behind him.
"We will unite the party behind our conservative principles and move forward and win the general election in November," he said.
According to exit polls, conservatives made up 63 percent of the Republican primary voters. Moderates made up 27 percent and liberals composed 10 percent of Republican primary voters.
Last year, McCain was the only major Republican candidate to reject the invitation to speak at the conservative conference.