Romney's Unity Pitch

Washington Matters

Romney's Unity Pitch

Thursday was the day that John McCain was supposed to try to make peace with all those conservatives who have been deriding him as a Republican in name only and threatening to sit on their hands in the November election. But before McCain could enter the lion's den of the Conservative Political Action Conference, Mitt Romney bearded the lion for him.

Not only did he clear McCain's path to the nomination by dropping out of the race, but he probably did more to make the case for McCain than McCain could ever have done.

Romney, who had questioned McCain's credentials as a true conservative as harshly as most of the activists at the convention, didn't formally endorse his rival. But Romney gave a rationale for ending his race that was also a clarion call for falling in line behind the apparent nominee -- not for the sake of the party, but in defense of the country. Fighting on would make it more likely that Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would win, he said. "And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror." With that line and with an urgency that he rarely displayed on the stump, Romney elevated in the minds of conservatives perhaps the only issue that emotionally connects McCain with much of the conservative base of the party.

Conservatives critical of McCain had boxed themselves into a difficult position -- support a candidate they didn't like and whose political orthodoxy they doubted or stay home in November and risk giving the White House to the Democrats. But Romney gave those conservatives a way out of the box: Forget the man. Remember the mission. 

Still, while focusing on the war in Iraq and the battle against terrorism could help unify the party, it won't be enough for November. Much of the country is opposed to the war, and in any event, the economy has emerged as a bigger issue on voters minds. McCain's challenge is to develop a message of economic hope and security (not his strongest suit) that appeals to independent and crossover voters without turning off conservatives who back him on the war. It won't be easy.