Vincent Chiarello says he will
never vote for John McCain
The Conservative Political Action Conference, currently under way in Washington DC, has traditionally been a place for Republicans to unite behind their presidential candidates.

But this year's event, dominated by Mitt Romney's announcement that he was suspending his campaign, served only to highlight the gaping splits between the conservative and centrist wings of the Grand Old Party, as the Republican party is sometimes known.

"I will not vote for John McCain and it is our belief that he will destroy the Republican party," Vincent Chiarello, a retired foreign service officer from Virginia, told Al Jazeera.

"I'd rather vote Democrat."

'Bad behaviour'

His views underline the deep suspicions that many conservative Republicans have regarding McCain, now almost certain to become the Republican presidential nominee, on issues such as immigration, tax cuts and campaign finance.

There were tears in the eyes of some Romney supporters following his announcement, which left many searching for a Republican they can whole-heartedly support.

There were few kind words for Hillary Clinton at
the Conservative Political Action Conference
"I've been a conservative my whole life and for him [Romney] to be the front-runner was very important to me," Peter Hornish, a student from Connecticut, said.

James Millar had travelled across the US from California for the conference and to volunteer for Romney's campaign.

Now he will be heading home early.

"McCain was my sixth choice from the Republicans and we now need a senate who will stop some of his bad behaviour," referring to McCain's backing of bills on climate change and campaign reform.

Bloggers' power

The influential annual conference was attended this year by an audience of mainly younger conservatives, many of them members of Republican student groups.

He is against waterboarding but says he supports the war on terror and that to me is a contradiction

It provides a meeting place for an important cross-section of conservative America with groups as disparate as the National Rifle Association, the Islamic Free Market Institute and StopHerNow.com, an anti-Hillary Clinton campaign group, on display.

Dick Cheney the US vice-president, kicked off proceedings, and was followed later by Romney, McCain and the maverick presidential candidate, Ron Paul.

George Bush, the US president, is due to speak on Friday.

The growing power and influence of right-wing internet bloggers was also on display, with dozens providing live comment and analysis of the event.

"I really don't know who i'm going to support right now, I really don't like John McCain that much," Sharon Noon, who runs the New Jersey-based Conservatives With An Attitude blog, told Al Jazeera.

"He is against waterboarding but says he supports the war on terror and that to me is a contradiction."

Echoes of Reagan

Others, however, adopted a more pragmatic approach, arguing that once faced with the choice between McCain and Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, many would back McCain despite their reservations.

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But despite the furore caused by Romney's announcement, it was a figure from the Republican past who loomed large over this year's conference.

Ronald Reagan's brand of populist social conservatism is remembered fondly by conservative Republicans and, not for the first time, Romney and McCain sought to tap into that support by name-checking him in their speeches.

McCain, who was booed during his speech over his stance on immigration, reminded the crowd that the first time he attended the event, it was at Reagan's invitation.

But if the reaction of those attending the conference is anything to go by, McCain faces an uphill battle to convince many in the conservative wing of the Republican party to give him their vote.

Source: Al Jazeera