What happened
Republican front-runner John McCain came under further attack from fellow Republicans today, with former House Speaker Dennis Hastert accusing him of being an unreliable Republican who was “allied with Democrats” in the Senate. As he gets closer to getting the GOP nomination, conservatives are debating whether he can win their vote in the general election. (The Swamp blog via the Balitmore Sun)

What the commentators said
Those “outside the conservative movement” don’t get the anti-McCain “anxiety,” said E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post (free registration). His voting record and positions on key issues—the Iraq war, abortion, government spending—are those of “an orthodox, conservative loyalist.” But conservatives don’t trust McCain, his history, or his base of support. If McCain pulls this off, it will signal “a divorce, after a 28-year marriage, between the Republican and conservative establishments.”

“Welcome to McCain Derangement Syndrome,” said Roger L. Simon in his blog. Whenever a politician becomes “popular and powerful,” it seems “a sizable percentage of the population starts to hate him.” Usually it happens after they are elected, but McCain’s getting an early start. How else to explain why conservatives “slavishly” believe that Mitt Romney, a former “conventional liberal,” has “seen the light,” but won’t believe the same of McCain?

Perhaps the trouble is his abysmal record on immigration and taxes, said Mark R. Levin in National Review Online. “McCain led the battle not once but twice against the border-security-first approach to illegal immigration,” and he very publicly opposed President Bush’s tax cuts “because they favored the rich (and, by the way, they did not).” And in this week’s debate, McCain hammered his “class warfare” theme again by complaining that Romney was using his “fortune” to bankroll his own campaign. “This is liberal pablum” that “could have been uttered by Hillary Clinton.”

McCain has real problems with the GOP base, said Kimberley Strassel in The Wall Street Journal. Clearly, some Republicans “could never bring themselves to vote for him, even with a gas mask.” But it’s not too late for him to make “amends,” and he knows it. So “watch for him to be as pure as the New Hampshire snow on the two core issues of taxes and judges” as he runs around “collecting establishment endorsements” to make himself an easier sell.

Conservatives can’t trust what McCain says now, said Michelle Malkin in her blog, because “we know what he has done for years:” Trash the base at every opportunity. Besides, “how can McCain honestly reach out to conservatives” on immigration, say, when he defends his campaign’s “extremist” Hispanic outreach coordinator, Juan Hernandez, who “doesn’t believe in borders”? Calling him the candidate who can unite conservatives is “yet another smack in the face to those who have watched him reach out and slap conservatives time and again.”

Look, the country wants change, said John McIntyre in RealClearPolitics, and “either through luck, serendipity, or design,” the GOP has found in McCain “its most competitive general election candidate, by far.” To win in 2004, the party needed McCain, Giuliani, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both Giuliani and Schwarzenegger endorsed McCain on Thursday, and the GOP can’t win this year without their moderate faction of the party. But there’s “one caveat”—McCain can’t win “without Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and evangelical voters.”

He also can’t win unless he lightens up, said David Brooks in The New York Times (free registration). Obama has taken over McCain’s “hopeful warrior” schtick from 2000, and the country “is not in a mood for irritation and anger.” If McCain can’t “excite Republicans with the possibility of a GOP victory,” clearly explaining his vision and how he can win, all his remarkable “character, his honesty, and his tenacity” won’t be enough.