by Lowman S. Henry | September 02, 2008

In early February U.S. Senator John McCain spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. The day before his most credible opponent for the Republican Presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, had appeared at the same podium and quit the race, making McCain the defacto nominee of the Republican Party.

It was a venue McCain has spurned just one year earlier. Always a maverick and frequently at odds with the inside-the-beltway conservative establishment, McCain rejected repeated invitations to address the more than 7,000 conservative activists from across the nation who gathered for CPAC. It was a mistake his competitors did not make. In fact Romney had bussed in thousands of college students to cheer him his candidacy.

Now John McCain needed the conservatives and he needed them bad. But the CPAC crowd, stunned by Romney’s sudden departure from the race, was in no mood to forgive and forget. CPAC organizers and a steady parade of conservative luminaries traipsed to the podium to plead for civil behavior and a warm welcome for McCain. The response was mixed. While some of the conservative faithful gave McCain polite attention and applause, others booed; still others boycotted the session. It was clear McCain would have a lot of convincing to do to get movement conservatives actively behind his candidacy.

CPAC captured in a microcosm the mood of conservatives across the land. Sitting on the sidelines as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fought their epic battle for the Democratic Presidential Nomination, conservatives brooded over having to settle for McCain, again forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.

McCain did little to help his own cause. He visited the Left coast and talked about global warming invoking the rhetoric of Al Gore. Conservatives rolled their eyes. He went on a Sunday morning interview program and suggested he would be open to raising Social Security taxes. Conservatives gagged. Then he suggested he might put a pro-abortion running mate, like former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge or Connecticut’s independent U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman on his ticket. Conservatives clutched their chests.

And then, the sands shifted. Speaking at Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum, McCain was forceful and compelling in revealing his core beliefs. Unlike Barack Obama, McCain did not parse words. When asked when life begins, he replied simply: “at conception.” Warren brought McCain out of his protective shell and cut to the heart of his being – and conservatives liked what they saw.

Ever since that cold February day in Washington, D.C. when it became apparent John McCain would carry the Republican banner it was obvious that his choice of a Vice Presidential running mate would make or break McCain’s support among grassroots conservatives. So, when McCain took to the stage in Dayton, Ohio to announce Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was his pick the reaction surpassed relief and surged into the realm of excitement.

The Palin pick has energized the conservative base of the Republican Party like no selection since Bob Dole placed conservative icon Jack Kemp on his ticket in 1996. Palin is everything conservatives could want in a candidate. She is ardently pro-life. And, she has “walked the walk,” giving birth earlier this year to a baby she knew would be born with Down ‘s syndrome; a baby some others might choose to abort. She is a card carrying member of the National Rifle Association, hunts moose, plays hockey and is a former Miss Alaska beauty contestant.

Politically Palin has built a career running against the establishment. She was elected to the city council, and then as mayor of her small town on a platform promising to cut wasteful spending and taxes. She defeated a sitting governor of her own party, and then a former governor of the other to win her state’s highest office. She is a maverick who speaks out against corruption and who is not afraid to take on anybody, including her own party elders.

Thus John McCain’s conservative journey has come full circle. He will remain a political maverick and will likely continue to give conservatives periodic heart palpitations. But his compelling life story, coupled with his soul barring interview at Saddleback, and the selection of Palin who could become the nation’s conservative leader of the future, have all combined to bring conservatives into the fold.

It is not a milepost on the road to the White House most would have predicted McCain could reach. But, neither would anybody have predicted that in early September any Republican candidate would be locked in a close battle for the Presidency. The selection of Sarah Palin ensures that McCain will complete in that battle with a full army of conservative troops on the battlefield.