WASHINGTON — Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain appealed to GOP House members for help rallying conservatives behind him, acknowledging the party must unite if it hopes to match the enthusiasm generated by Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
McCain met Wednesday with House Republicans in an effort to smooth over past conflicts and encourage critics to back his candidacy. McCain, all but assured the nomination, won Tuesday's primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
"I'm very gratified by the very warm reception that I received from the Republican conference this morning _ a spirited and a good discussion of some of the issues," McCain told reporters afterward. "I'm very grateful for our pledge to work together."
McCain spoke at a Capitol Hill news conference where he was flanked by the House GOP leadership. The Arizona senator is working hard to reassure critics who are suspicious of his more moderate positions on some issues and of his tendency to work with Democrats.
Republican leader John Boehner, for one, was willing to set aside differences.
"Clearly, I've had some disagreements with Senator McCain over the years," said Boehner, an Ohio congressman. "But I've got to tell you, I've watched this presidential race unfold, and I've watched John McCain be a strong advocate for the principles I believe in."
GOP whip Roy Blunt called McCain "the best possible nominee for us to take back the House."
"The nominee who appeals to Reagan Democrats, the nominee who appeals to independents, the nominee who will unite conservatives in a way that assures he'll be not only the next president, but he'll be working with a Republican majority in the House," Blunt said.
Republican retirements from Congress diminish the GOP's chances of recapturing control of the House and Senate in November.
McCain promised to work hard to elect Republicans to the House, and allowed the Democrats have generated more enthusiasm among voters to date.
Complicating his task is Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has stubbornly refused to leave the Republican race despite the seeming impossibility of overcoming McCain's commanding lead in the chase for convention delegates.
"Of course, I would like for him to withdraw today; it would be much easier," McCain said. "But I respect his right to remain in this race for just as long as he wants to."
Huckabee gave McCain big trouble Tuesday among conservatives in Virginia. There, exit polls showed 63 percent of white, born-again Christians supported Huckabee.
Even so, McCain noted, he won Virginia by more than 9 percent.
"In any election I've ever been involved in, a 9 percent cushion is very good," McCain said. "I also understand why many evangelical Christians would vote for Governor Huckabee. He is a Baptist minister."
As he did Tuesday night, McCain focused much of his criticism on Obama, Tuesday's winner on the Democratic side.
"I respect him and the campaign that he has run, but there's going to come a time when we have to get into specifics," McCain told reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill. "I've not observed every speech he's given, obviously, but they are singularly lacking in specifics."