WASHINGTON (CNN) – Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich gave his approval to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s White House bid Saturday, telling a conservative crowd that political victory was more important than ideological purity.
“I think it’s a totally honorable thing to say 'I support the candidate but I oppose the policy,'” he told activists gathered for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Later, he made his view more explicit: “As a citizen, I would rather have a President McCain that we fight with 20 percent of the time than a President Clinton or a President Obama who we fight with 90 percent of the time.”
He said he had traveled to Idaho last weekend, when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama attracted a crowd of at least 16,000 in Boise, and that the ability of a Senate Democrat to attract a crowd of that size in that solidly-red state was “inconceivable.”
“On Super Tuesday, there were 14.6 million Democrats who thought the presidential nomination was worth voting for, and there were 8.3 million Republicans” who felt the same, he said. “That is a warning of a catastrophic election.”
He said there was “something happening” in the country that conservatives did not understand, and “I believe we need to change or expect defeat.” But he said a Republican win this fall was still possible.
It was a timely nod for McCain's candidacy. The likely GOP presidential nominee, who has struggled to win over his party's conservative base, was repeatedly booed during his own CPAC speech on Thursday.
Gingrich – who made a grand entrance Saturday to a recording of “Stars and Stripes Forever” – received a far different welcome from the conservative crowd. “We need you, Newt!” called one member of the audience.
The former Georgia congressman had weighed his own 2008 presidential run before abandoning the idea late last year. In the 2007 CPAC presidential straw poll, only Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani earned more first- and second-place votes.
He did not say Saturday whether he officially endorsed or would actively support McCain.
–CNN Associate Political Editor Rebecca Sinderbrand