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With Romney out, McCain faces tests from fractured GOP

WASHINGTON -- John McCain seized control of a fractured Republican Party on Thursday, vanquishing his last serious rival for its presidential nomination and reaching out to a conservative base that remains skeptical, if not hostile, to him.

WASHINGTON -- John McCain seized control of a fractured Republican Party on Thursday, vanquishing his last serious rival for its presidential nomination and reaching out to a conservative base that remains skeptical, if not hostile, to him.

The Arizona senator all but locked up the nomination with the sudden withdrawal of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

His sole remaining competitor is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a populist outsider with strong appeal to Christian conservatives but almost no support among nonreligious voters, no money to wage the kind of campaign it would take to reach them and no friends in the party's talk-radio and TV echo chamber to help him rally disaffected conservatives.

"The contest for the GOP presidential nomination is over," said conservative blogger Michelle Malkin. "The conservative movement is not."

McCain still must win more delegates to assure a first-ballot nomination at this summer's Republican National Convention in St. Paul. But with his big lead in delegates, he could win fewer than half the remaining delegates and still prevail. Huckabee needs to win the vast majority to overtake McCain.

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McCain's triumph was sealed at, of all places, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, a right-wing mecca of party activists and strategists that he shunned last year as hostile territory.

First, Romney appeared for what was supposed to be a clarion call to conservatives to rally behind him as the anti-McCain. Instead, Romney ended his stump speech by announcing that he was quitting to allow McCain to start taking on the Democrats for a fall campaign.

"If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator [Hillary] Clinton or [Barack] Obama would win," he said.

"I feel I must now stand aside, for our party and for our country," he added to groans from supporters caught by surprise.

Huckabee insisted Thursday that conservatives should coalesce around his campaign. "The people of this country need a choice," he said.

But few conservatives even mentioned Huckabee as a viable alternative Thursday, and talk-radio lords such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity dislike Huckabee as much as they do McCain.

Appearing before the conference a few hours later, McCain acted like the de facto nominee, lauding Romney and Huckabee and reaching out to conservatives who so far have refused to coalesce behind his candidacy. When McCain was announced, a minute of persistent booing kept pace with the applause.

"We have had a few disagreements, and none of us will pretend that we won't continue to have a few," he said.

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"But even in disagreement, especially in disagreement, I will seek the counsel of my fellow conservatives. If I am convinced my judgment is in error, I will correct it. And if I stand by my position, even after benefit of your counsel, I hope you will not lose sight of the far more numerous occasions when we are in complete accord."

He left the stage quickly, but the boos returned before he could reach the curtain. He acknowledged their differences on issues such as illegal immigration and tax cuts, and stressed that they agree more than they disagree.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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