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Georgia Republicans slow to embrace McCain as nominee

WASHINGTON - Until a few weeks ago, Georgia Republicans in Congress had greeted John McCain's presidential campaign with telling silence.

Peach State lawmakers had lined up behind Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee - or stayed out of the race altogether. None had endorsed the Arizona maverick who has so often bucked the party's conservative core.

That's beginning to change now that McCain has all but sealed the nomination. But Georgia's GOP delegation remains lukewarm about his presumed perch at the top of the party's ballot. Some say it's an open question whether conservative voters in the state will embrace him come November.

'I think a lot's going to depend upon who his running mate is and what he does between now and November,' said Rep. Paul Broun, R-Athens. 'But certainly I'd rather see a President McCain than a President Clinton or President Obama.'

Such support-by-default sentiments are common. Even now, with McCain considered the prohibitive front-runner, only one of Georgia's seven Republican U.S. House members has officially endorsed him - Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, who had backed Romney before the former Massachusetts governor dropped out of the race.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Savannah, another early Romney supporter, put it this way: 'You can get unified by fear and you can get unified by inspiration. I think we may be unified by fear' of Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama.

Georgia's senators - Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie, and Johnny Isakson, R-Marietta - were first to get behind McCain. They endorsed him earlier this month, just before the state's primary, as McCain was solidifying his hold on the nomination.

Their backing wasn't enough to help him win the state, however.

Huckabee won the Feb. 5 primary with 34 percent of the vote to McCain's 32 percent. Romney took about 30 percent.

Based on exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks, McCain fared particularly poorly among voters describing themselves as 'very conservative,' getting just 15 percent of their votes. He received only about a quarter of Republican voters who said they were born-again or evangelical Christians.

McCain has often infuriated conservatives by bucking GOP leadership on issues such as taxes, immigration and the environment. A bipartisan immigration package that he helped try to push through Congress last year particularly incensed Georgia conservatives - forcing Chambliss and Isakson to drop their earlier support for the measure.

'He does have to reach out to the conservatives, there's no questions about that,' said Gingrey. 'But I think he'll be a strong candidate. Even though we're not on the same page about everything, he has such great strength on national defense.'

Rep. John Linder, who initially backed Romney and recently switched to Huckabee, said he chose Huckabee because the former Arkansas governor has backed Linder's long-standing flat tax platform.

But, like others, he said he expects McCain to win and intends to support him once he does.

'I go back to what (Ronald) Reagan said, when a fella disagrees with me 20 percent of the time, he's my friend,' Linder said. He added that he plans to 'write (McCain) a big check.'

Rep. Tom Price, a Roswell Republican who had backed Romney, agreed that Republicans will ultimately rally around McCain once the contrast between him and

the Democratic nominee becomes more clear in a head-to-head race.

But his reluctance to do so just yet was clear. Asked if he would campaign with McCain, he hesitated and said, 'I'd consider it.'