McCain spoke before CPAC shortly after Romney announced he was suspending his bid. (Photo Credit: AP)
WASHINGTON (CNN) - John McCain – who took the stage at an annual conservative gathering Thursday as the likely Republican presidential nominee - got a decidedly mixed reception from the assembled activists.
As he took the stage, he was booed by many in the audience hearing him speak at the Conservative Political Action conference - despite, some attendees told CNN, instructions from event organizers to avoid those negative displays.
“Many of you have disagreed strongly with some positions I have taken in recent years. I understand that,” said McCain. “I might not agree with it, but I respect it for the principled position it is.”
Former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney – who exited the race from the same stage just hours earlier - was able to win over many of these conservatives, and rack up several wins this year, by running as an alternative to John McCain.
The Arizona senator may have become the likely GOP nominee without, for the most part, winning majorities of either Republican or conservative voters in any primary contest – but winning over the activists in the audience is still vital to McCain’s presidential bid.
Continued ambivalence about or hostility to his presidential bid from the conservative base would make it difficult for him to win the general election. And those in attendance at CPAC tend to be the Republican footsoldiers who help drive election turnout.
Last year, McCain was the only Republican candidate who did not address the group, and volunteers for Mitt Romney and Sam Brownback dominated. This year, there are dozens of his volunteers on hand, and a sizeable number of few attendees are sporting campaign stickers and carrying McCain signs.
In another effort to reach out to the crowd, McCain came with, and was introduced by, former Virginia Sen. George Allen – a CPAC favorite who won the group’s presidential straw poll two years ago.
He drew catcalls from some on the crowd – forcing him to pause – when he said he would not change his views on immigration. A handful exited the ballroom where he was speaking. But the audience erupted in applause when he said he intended to make the Bush tax cuts permanent.
McCain also pledged to nominate judges “of the character and quality of Justices Roberts and Alito” – continuing a recent campaign theme that is of central importance to many conservatives, and following on recent endorsements from conservative legal luminaries Ted Olson and Manuel Miranda.
“We have had a few disagreements, and none of us will pretend that we won't continue to have a few,” said McCain. “But even in disagreement - especially in disagreement - I will seek the counsel of my fellow conservatives. If I am convinced my judgment is in error, I will correct it.
“And if I stand by my position, even after benefit of your counsel, I hope you will not lose sight of the far more numerous occasions when we are in complete accord.”
McCain’s Republican rival, Mike Huckabee, will be addressing the group in a much lower-profile Saturday slot. The group will also release the results of its 2008 presidential straw poll that day.
– CNN Associate Political Editor Rebecca Sinderbrand
Related: Watch McCain work to court conservative support