ST. PAUL, MN: As a rule, political candidates begin moving to the center on Labor Day, but John McCain has continued to focus on solidifying his rightwing base, particularly among social conservatives. The convention’s first two days have been a conservative love-fest for McCain’s vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin. McCain’s handlers have also allowed social conservatives free reign in writing this year’s Republican platform.


McCain strategists have tried to explain Palin’s nomination as an attempt to secure discontented Democrats who backed Hillary Clinton. But that’s not the refrain heard here among social conservatives who predominate among the delegates. They like Palin because she is one of them. And there is some reason to believe that McCain’s choice was partly intended to mollify conservatives like James Dobson and Richard Land who were on the fence, but who, since the choice of Palin, have become considerably warmer toward McCain.


That’s certainly the view of Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, and a member of the secret conservative organization, the Council for National Policy, which met last Thursday and Friday in Minneapolis to debate McCain’s candidacy. According to Norquist, the council members, who include the country’s leading social conservatives, became enthusiastic about McCain when they heard of his choice of Palin. “They were uneasy before, and they suddenly became very excited,” Norquist explains, as we talk in the lobby of the St. Paul Hotel, after he has finished addressing the Arizona delegation. Norquist says the story of Palin’s child with down syndrome was particularly important to the social conservatives. “Even Richard Viguerie was enthusiastic. I’ve never seen him excited about any Republican presidential nominee.”


The council members and other conservatives were also cheered by the Republican platform. The McCain people exercised a “light touch,” says Norquist. And indeed they did. The platform is a paean to social conservatism and diverges from McCain’s own convictions. It backs a Human Life Amendment on abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest, or a threat to the health of the mother; it backs the Second Amendment with no exceptions (“gun control only affect and paralyzes law-abiding citizens”); and it takes a position on immigration that would warm Rep. Tom Tancredo’s cold heart. It focuses on enforcing “border security,” rejects “amnesty” and “en masse legalizations,” and promotes English-only legislation. Most telling, perhaps, it devotes very little attention to the Iraq war. That, too, reflects the disquiet of many social conservatives like Norquist about the war.


At the convention, there are rumblings about Palin from moderates and from conservative intellectuals like David Frum and Ramesh Ponnuru, but most of the delegates remain enthusiastic. Like Norquist, they reject the questions raised about Palin as attempts by “the left to destroy her.” And they are convinced these attacks will strengthen the McCain ticket. Like the passengers on Titanic, they celebrate, while the iceberg of doubt called up by her nomination looms on the horizon.


McCain now has tonight and the next two days to change course. If George W. Bush appears tonight, even by video, that is not likely to help McCain. That leaves him only two days. If he doesn’t move away from the militant right--and if the questions about Palin don’t subside--he is likely to lose the election, and even to lose it big.


--John B. Judis