Republicans still have time to unite or change minds

The fallout from the Super Tuesday presidential primary contests has Democrats still taking their time to pick between two popular candidates while Republicans are trying to decide if they can embrace the frontrunner from Arizona, who is better known as a maverick than as a party standard bearer.

Sen. John McCain already is working to convert his new-found status as the leading contender into a final victory for the Republican nomination, while trying to avoid a deep split with traditional conservatives that potentially could ruin his party’s chances in November.

There was a sudden and bitter backlash against McCain going into Super Tuesday, as prominent conservative voices ranging from talk show host Rush Limbaugh to evangelical activist James Dobson decried the resurgence of McCain over Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.

While McCain represents the party mainstream on issues such as defense, opposition to abortion and less government spending, he has angered religious conservatives with his support of embryonic stem cell research and his refusal to support a federal amendment to ban same-sex marriages (while supporting an Arizona version rejected by voters there in 2006).

Other conservatives have long opposed his signature campaign reform legislation as an assault on the free speech of grassroots groups.

And there’s lingering resentment of McCain’s leadership last year for comprehensive immigration reform, even though the senator now says he would pursue border enforcement first.

All of this adds up to enough disillusionment that some conservatives such as Dobson have said they just won’t vote in November if McCain is the nominee. Such a divide would harm not only McCain personally, but likely would damage the Republican Party in congressional and state elections as well.

The contest on the Democratic side between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has attracted voters of that party in record numbers so far. And most Democrats appear eager to support either Clinton or Obama as the party nominee to take the U.S. in a dramatic new direction after eight years of President Bush’s administration.

Enthused Democrats could link up with independents leery of the Iraq war to soundly defeat despondent Republicans across the country. McCain recognizes the threat, and has stepped up his efforts to mollify his conservative critics. He has drafted prominent officials from the Reagan years and other Republican big names such as former Sen. Bob Dole to defend McCain’s credentials.

And McCain reached out directly to conservatives at his campaign rally in Phoenix on Tuesday night.

“I promise you … that I will work hard to ensure that conservative philosophy and principles of our great party, principles that have done so well by the country we love, will again win the votes of a majority of American people and defeat any candidate our friends on the other side nominate,” McCain said.

But McCain doesn’t have the nomination locked up yet, and Republicans in the remaining states have to decide if it’s time to unite behind the frontrunner or to push hard and fast for an alternative to take his place.