Sen. John McCain's speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday was designed to shore up conservative voters, his most vulnerable political flank.
And while his campaign was aided by the earlier announcement of Mitt Romney's departure from the Republican race, and McCain himself made repeated overtures for the crowd's support, evidence suggests there is work to be done.
"I am hopeful that he will eventually address these issues that conservatives have with him. But he didn't do that," said former Majority Leader Tom DeLay after McCain's speech. "What is his basic position on taxes?"
(Asked if he himself would run, DeLay replied: "I don't think somebody who's indicted ought to run for president.")
McCain's address at CPAC did receive many good reviews, even from McCain skeptics. But much of the speech was spent imploring conservatives to trust his credentials.
"I am proud, very proud to have come to public office as a proud foot soldier in the Reagan revolution," McCain declared. "And while a few of my positions have raised concern that I have abandoned my political heritage, I want to assure you I have not, and am as proud of my association today as I was then."
Even McCain's introductory speakers were pleading with the audience to move beyond their cynicism. Former Virginia Sen. George Allen, who had previously been with Fred Thompson's campaign, admitted that "John and I have had some disagreements on issues." But, he added, McCain had been as steadfast in his support for the war as he was for "pro-growth" initiatives. "My fellow conservatives," Allen implored, "you are absolutely essential teammates in our cause."
Next up was Sen. Tom Coburn, who was introduced to a raucous applause, primarily because people thought McCain was taking the stage.
"He may not always tell us what we want to hear, but what he tells us he will mean and he will do," the Oklahoma Republican declared. "He has risked his political life in this campaign in defense of an unpopular war."
When McCain himself walked to the podium, the crowd roared in approval. He apologized for not attending last year's CPAC conference, saying he didn't want it to appear that he was the presidential frontrunner. Like those before him, he addressed the rift his candidacy posed to the Republican Party.
"I have been [our country's] imperfect servant for many years and I have made many mistakes," he acknowledged late in the speech. "You can attest to that... but need not to," he joked. He listed those issues in which he has led by conviction: the war in Iraq, earmarks, and federal spending.
"I campaigned in Iowa against agricultural subsidies," the senator said, to which several staffers shook their heads, muttering, "Yes you did."
When the topic of the speech changed to his earlier support for immigration reform the crowd drowned him out with its first, and most sustained, smitten of boos. McCain responded with a Cheshire cat smile.
"We have had our disagreements. None of us will pretend we won't continue to have a few," McCain concluded. "But I will continue to seek the council of my conservative brethren."
It was enough to make the audience happy, but not some of the conservative stalwarts.
"The problems conservatives have with him is his record. He didn't address his record," said DeLay. Asked if he would not back McCain's candidacy, the former majority leader responded, "I will support the conservative candidate."