PHOENIX (AP) — Who would have believed it? John McCain — occasional antagonist of the establishment, defender of an unpopular war, loser of the 2000 primary campaign — stands as the likely Republican nominee for president.
But even after a whirlwind of voting Tuesday that delivered a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead over rival Mitt Romney, McCain still faces a daunting task — winning over the conservatives who are suspicious of, even hostile toward, the four-term Arizona senator.
He took the first step Tuesday night, when he declared victory in a carefully written, why-I-am-a-Republican speech. McCain said he hopes to draw Republicans together in the manner of Ronald Reagan, patron saint of the modern-day GOP.
"I am as confident tonight as I have ever been that we can succeed in November by uniting our party in our determination to keep our country safe, proud, prosperous and free and by again making a persuasive case to independents, and to those enlightened members of the other party, that the great Ronald Reagan claimed for our party," he said.
The race is not completely settled. While Tuesday's voting was enough to make McCain the clear front-runner, he's still won just under half the convention delegates he will need to lock up nomination.
Given the numbers, Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee were left with a tough decision: Keep going, despite the long odds, or bow out? Neither was willing to give up just yet, particularly the under-funded Huckabee who was buoyed by victories in West Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Arkansas — his first since Iowa.
And the voting continues. Louisiana and Kansas vote on Saturday, and Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., next Tuesday.
While McCain's tangled relationship with some in his party is a hindrance, he attracts party moderates, independents and crossover Democrats — the kind of voters who would be crucial in the November general election against Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama.
On Tuesday, McCain led among independents, and among moderates, he held a 2-to-1 advantage over Romney, according to preliminary exit poll results.
Among his other strengths:
r McCain had an edge over his rivals among veterans, older voters, Hispanics and men.
r Nearly half of GOP voters said McCain is the candidate best qualified to serve as commander in chief.
r On the economy — the top issue for Republicans — voters favored McCain, and McCain also won over voters worried most about Iraq and terrorism.
McCain's weakness is with conservatives; about four in 10 supported Romney while three in 10 backed McCain and two in 10 were behind Huckabee, according to preliminary results from national exit polls. And McCain has even more ground to cover with conservative voters who are white, born-again Christians, only a quarter of whom voted for McCain Tuesday.
McCain has feuded for years with some on the party's right flank who mistrust his sometimes moderate positions and willingness to work with Democrats. He needs their support going into what will certainly be a closely contested general election.
Not that McCain is exactly a liberal; he has reliably voted against abortion rights and gun control and has tried mightily to cut federal spending, among other issues.
Even so, many conservatives hold a long list of grievances against McCain. They don't trust him because he has supported a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, worked to limit money in politics in what foes consider a violation of free speech; and opposed a constitutional ban on gay marriage. And he voted against President Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.
McCain will take another step toward detente with those voters Thursday when he speaks in Washington to the annual Conservative Political Action Committee gathering, an appearance he skipped last year.
His focus will be on the need to appoint conservative judges, his support for the Iraq war and his national security credentials. And he will talk about tax cuts, reiterating his desire to extend the Bush tax cuts even though he voted against them.
For all the animosity, McCain agrees with his critics far more often than he disagrees with them.
"On national security, on taxes, on spending and economic policy, on life and judges, those kind of issues, he's solid and agrees with them," GOP consultant Charlie Black, a McCain adviser, said Tuesday. He said there will be "big differences" on those issues between McCain and whichever Democrat is nominated.
Libby Quaid covers the presidential campaign for The Associated Press.