McCain appears at dinner in Halethorpe

The Baltimore Sun

On a day he became the prohibitive favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. John McCain arrived at a veterans hall in Halethorpe, where he was greeted by about three dozen supporters waving signs and chanting his name.

But not all inside were as enthusiastic last night about the Arizona senator. Many had bought tickets to see former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, only to learn yesterday he had abruptly dropped out of the race. At least one person in the audience wore a Romney shirt, and others said they were voting for McCain reluctantly.

"I know there are supporters here" for Romney, McCain told the standing-room-only crowd at American Legion Post 109, adding that they had fought a tough campaign. "I have no doubt we will unify this party."

After his victories in the Super Tuesday primaries this week, McCain is considered the prohibitive favorite to win the Republican nomination, despite his historically uneasy relations with his party's conservative wing.

Although former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Rep. Ron Paul remain in the race, most political observers considered Romney, who had racked up significant delegate totals, widespread name recognition and campaign donations, to be McCain's biggest challenge in the remaining primaries.

Romney had been the major headliner for the Baltimore County Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day dinner, which drew about 360 activists who paid $75 each.

McCain apparently decided to show up for the dinner at the last minute. He spoke earlier in the day in Washington, then trekked north to the Baltimore area, where he visited the parents of Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on Dolores Avenue in Arbutus.

Ehrlich, who had endorsed former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani before he dropped out of the Republican race, made it clear he is now behind McCain.

"This is a bottom-line business -- you win or you lose," Ehrlich said, adding that McCain was the man to deliver Republicans a victory in November. "How about a true patriot, a war hero, a pork-buster, a tax-cutter, a straight talker?"

McCain spoke for about a half-hour and earned his loudest ovation when he talked about the war in Iraq.

"A date for withdrawal from Iraq means a date for surrender. And I will never surrender," McCain said.

Glenn McCalley, 55, of White Hall was one of several voters in attendance who said they had been for Romney. Until yesterday, he had operated a Web site selling Romney shirts and other campaign merchandise.

Asked whether he now supported McCain, McCalley said, "I don't have much choice."

"I'll work for him," McCalley added. "I hope he wins. I wish he were more conservative."

Another Romney convert was Seth Wolak, 22, of Annapolis, a substitute teacher for Anne Arundel County public schools, who showed up at the event with his sister, Keara.

Wolak said he initially held animosity toward the senator because of his record on issues such as illegal immigration. But he said he now supports him.

"He stands for what he believes in, even if he's not politically popular," Wolak said.

Keara Wolak, 28, said she was a longtime supporter of McCain, and that the senator's experience as a military veteran and a senator in Washington trumped the other candidates.

"He's ready," Keara Wolak said. "That's basically it."

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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