WASHINGTON — Senator John McCain has long aroused almost unanimous opposition from the leaders of the right. Accusing him of crimes against conservative orthodoxy like voting against a big tax cut and opposing a federal ban on same-sex marriage, conservative activists have agitated for months to thwart his Republican presidential primary campaign.
That, however, was before he emerged this week as the party’s front-runner.
Since his victory in the Florida primary, the growing possibility that Mr. McCain may carry the Republican banner in November is causing anguish to the right. Some, including James C. Dobson and Rush Limbaugh, say it is far too late for forgiveness.
But others, faced with the prospect of either a Democrat sitting in the White House or a Republican elected without them, are beginning to look at Mr. McCain’s record in a new light.
“He has moved in the right direction strongly and forcefully on taxes,” said Grover Norquist, an antitax organizer who had been the informal leader of conservatives against a McCain nomination, adding that he had been talking to Mr. McCain’s “tax guys” for more than a year.
Tony Perkins, a prominent Christian conservative who has often denounced Mr. McCain, is warming up to him, too.
“I have no residual issue with John McCain,” Mr. Perkins said, adding that the senator needed “to better communicate” his convictions on social issues.
Richard Land, an official of the Southern Baptist Convention and a longtime critic of Mr. McCain, agreed, saying, “He is strongly pro-life.”
“When I hear Rush Limbaugh say that a McCain nomination would destroy the Republican Party,” Dr. Land added, “what I want to say to Rush is, ‘You need to get out of the studio more and talk to real people.’ ”
How firmly conservatives reject or embrace Mr. McCain may be a pivotal variable, both in the homestretch of the Republican primary campaign, when Mitt Romney is hoping to rally conservatives to his side, and in the general election, when too much grumbling from the right in a close race could cost Mr. McCain the White House.
The McCain campaign, for its part, is doing remedial work on the right. On the day after the Florida primary, it announced that Mr. McCain would speak next week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a major gathering held each year in Washington.
Last year, he drew barbs from the conservative news media for skipping the event while his Republican rivals all attended. His advisers now consider that a big mistake.
“We recognize that conservatives will be instrumental to our victory in November and we are reaching out and taking their advice,” said Jill Hazelbaker, a McCain spokeswoman.
Many on the right, though, say Mr. McCain has a lot of explaining to do. Not only did he vote against President Bush’s tax cuts and a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, Mr. McCain has also supported embryonic stem cell research and stricter environmental regulation. He fought for looser immigration rules. He championed campaign finance rules that many on the right consider a violation of free speech. And he made a deal with Democrats to break a deadlock on judicial nominations that many on the right considered near treasonous.
Anger over that deal flared up again this week when a Wall Street Journal columnist, John Fund, reported that Mr. McCain had privately criticized Mr. Bush’s Supreme Court nominee Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. because “he wore his conservatism on his sleeve.”
The McCain campaign quickly denied that he held such a view, noting that the senator voted for Mr. Alito’s confirmation and routinely praises his selection on the stump. But conservative activists say the charges nonetheless reminded them of their doubts.
“Conservatives need to act now, before it is too late!” Mark R. Levin, a movement veteran and talk-radio host, wrote on the Web site of National Review, urging a “rally for Romney.” The publication was host to an online debate on Wednesday on the question “A Republican future with McCain?”
A spokesman for Dr. Dobson, the influential evangelical Christian founder of Focus on the Family, said Wednesday that he stood by the position he staked out more than a year ago that as a matter of conscience he could never vote for Mr. McCain.
Nor has the small-government wing of the movement swung to Mr. McCain’s side. “I have yet to see McCain make any attempts to reach out to free market conservatives,” said Pat Toomey, president of the antitax group Club for Growth, warning that “if you have a big problem with a big part of your base, you really should be mending fences.”
And in his broadcast on Thursday, Mr. Limbaugh escalated his attacks on Mr. McCain as an imposter in the party.
“McCain is in a lot of these places not actually the Republican candidate,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “He is the candidate of enough Republicans, but independents and moderates and probably even some liberals.”
Mr. Limbaugh contended that such voters were deciding Republican primaries because other candidates had divided the conservative vote.
Still, even Mr. McCain’s most determined antagonists say the animosity among conservative leaders does not necessarily extend deep into the rank and file, where not many remember the details of Mr. McCain’s views on campaign finance or judicial nomination procedures. “It is kind of inside baseball,” as Mr. Perkins put it.
Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Toomey and others are working hard to rally conservatives around Mr. Romney, who has campaigned as a by-the-book conservative despite a record of more liberal stances he took in campaigns for senator and governor in Massachusetts.
In contrast to Mr. McCain, Mr. Romney has convinced conservative leaders that he is on their side through assiduous, face-to-face courtship, but he has struggled to have the same success at the grass roots.
Mr. Romney also faces the problem of Mike Huckabee’s continuing campaign. A Southern Baptist pastor before he became governor of Arkansas, Mr. Huckabee has struck a chord with Christian conservatives, preventing Mr. Romney from bringing together economic and social conservatives opposed to Mr. McCain.
“Romney and Huckabee divided the Bush vote,” Mr. Norquist, the tax opponent, said. “Bush was Romney and Huckabee in one body.”
Meanwhile, conservatives are growing increasingly “resigned” to the idea of a McCain nomination, said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, adding that among Washington activists, many of whom, like him, double as lobbyists, self-interest may also be a factor.
“There are people who don’t like the idea of a being off a campaign or being on the bad list if the guy gets into the White House,” Mr. Keene said. “This is a town in which 90 percent of the people balance their access and income on the one hand versus their principles on the other.”