Senator John McCain entered the presidential race facing a skeptical conservative base.
The list of grievances was long: He voted against the Bush tax cuts; he championed campaign finance reform and the ban on issue ads that are the lifeblood of conservative organizations; he advocated a sweeping, controversial plan for immigration reform; and he wanted to close Guantánamo and considered waterboarding to be torture.
The complaints were personal (too angry), ideological (not conservative enough) or petty and stylistic (too quick to talk about military service).
So the conservative base sought out viable alternatives, suspending concern about Mitt Romney’s reversals on key issues, Fred Thompson’s thin Senate record and laconic campaign style or Rudy Giuliani’s ideological unorthodoxies.
None of those alternatives quite panned out.
Then, to the shock of the conservative intelligentsia and against their stern warnings, Republican voters in Iowa rewarded Mike Huckabee for his brand of populist charm. Mr. Huckabee certainly satisfied the longing of social conservatives for a stalwart defender of their agenda. They were thrilled to have one of their own who could demonstrate that not all evangelicals were strident, negative and castigating.
But the problem is that while evangelicals had found their champion, the rest of the famed Reagan coalition was not amused. In Mr. Huckabee, many movement conservatives saw a popular figure not schooled in, and antagonistic toward, the Club for Growth brand of fiscal conservatism. They also saw a provincial governor with a shaky and naïve view of foreign affairs. Jimmy Carter comparisons abounded.
It was no surprise, then, that Mr. McCain, merely by sticking around, became an attractive prospect once again. He demonstrated resolve under pressure and dispelled concerns that he was too old by outworking his rivals, capping his emphatic revival by winning comfortably in New Hampshire.
If he has not quite won the hearts of conservatives over the course of his comeback, he has almost certainly earned their respect. And he provides a potential way out of the daunting political dilemma the G.O.P. now finds itself in, starting with the much-criticized primary field and leading to the prospect of civil war within the party.
Heading into the Michigan and South Carolina primaries, Mr. Romney has faltered, Mr. Thompson seems to have woken up too late and Mr. Giuliani has never quite made the sale with the base.
Suddenly, the very qualities that the party’s conservatives considered to be Mr. McCain’s biggest faults might be seen in greater perspective. His role as party uniter—irony is grand in politics—might be appreciated.
Certainly on foreign policy and social issues, his conservative credentials pass muster. With a touch of paint here, a dab of Phil Gramm advice there and a few nods to the benefit of tax cuts (always coupled with an enthusiastic cheer for spending restraint), he could turn out to be just the champion they’ve been looking for.
He may have to be.
If the conservative base forgives past indiscretions and makes peace with the man who has often been a thorn in their side, they may yet preserve the famed Reagan coalition that the media now seems so anxious to declare dead.
As Barry Goldwater said, it is a time for choosing.