Rudy Giuliani is out of the race and will endorse John McCain. After Florida, McCain leads in the number of votes cast in all the GOP primaries and in the number of delegates. He did not win in Florida among conservatives but did win enough among Republicans and independents (yes, they voted in Florida) to win the primary. Going into several winner-take-all states on Super-Duper Tuesday, John McCain is the front-runner. Congratulations to him and his campaign. Once everything shakes out, we’ll probably see that the combination of the surprising Huckaboom plus the Rudy early state gambit gave McCain the opening that he needed while thwarting Romney’s own early state strategy.

McCain is a problematic front-runner, to say the least, from a conservative point of view. He openly lied about his own record on amnesty and Romney’s record on Iraq as recently as a few days ago. McCain has imbibed deeply of the global warming kool-aid and will take government action in that direction. He is weak on taxes and economics, he is so weak on border security that he still has former Mexican cabinet official and open borders zealot Juan Hernandez on his campaign, and he has built his “maverick” career on bashing conservatives and conservatism. None of that has mattered in the primaries thus far, though, and I think that says as much about the other candidates as it says about McCain. But on the positive side, McCain is seen as a national security hawk, and the votes of military and retirees went his way based largely on that. The GOP could do worse than nominate a bona fide war hero for the presidency, even while he presents serious problems on many issues. Our party at least takes national security very seriously and votes on it as a priority, something that can’t be honestly said of the Democrats. And for all his maverickness, McCain does vote conservative about 80% of the time. That fact gets lost in his high-profile betrayals of conservatives and conservative principles, and the existence of legislation called “McCain-Feingold” and “McCain-Kennedy.” He needs to work on something called “McCain-DeMint” or “McCain-Hunter.” Some sort of earmark-slashing tax cut package would be nice.

The other candidates have either failed to catch on so far because of poor strategy, taking stands at odds with the party base and personal peccadilloes; because they appeal only to a limited segment of the party; because they ran weak campaigns; or because their previous record of expediency came back to haunt them. Oddly enough, nearly all of those attributes could describe McCain himself to one degree or another, yet he’s the favorite to win the nomination now. Maybe McCain is the embodiment of all that’s wrong with the GOP right now. He is certainly both a reflection of its traditionalism and a symptom of its policy divisions. He may also be the logical outcome of the some of the fractures the Bush years have exposed. And maybe many of us are voting for him because it’s McCain’s “turn.” Republicans do that sort of thing, often to our detriment.

Conservatives can take heart from a couple of things. The nomination fight isn’t over, and if Huckabee drops out it’s a two-man race that may force both McCain and Romney to court the base in ways that at least McCain hasn’t up to now. Unfortunately, Huckabee isn’t likely to drop out any time soon, so if you’re for Romney, then you’re essentially taking on two candidates who have allied together against you and one of them is holding a cache of votes that you need. How do you capture them? And for all his business acumen, Romney isn’t a perfect candidate either. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate, but this group has carried more than its share of unique issues.

Even if McCain or a Democrat wins the White House, we conservatives can still win on issues as they arise. We beat back an immigration amnesty that had the support of most in the Senate and the Bush administration. We can do it again if McCain or a Democrat is dumb enough to try pushing it again. It will be more difficult, but not impossible.

But even while we can win on some issues, it’s worrisome to me that the more capitalistic party is about to nominate someone who has shown as little understanding of and respect for the private sector as the top two Democrats have. It’s worrisome that the top three candidates, McCain, Obama and Clinton, have little regard for freedom of speech. It’s worrisome that this election is turning less on issues and more on narratives and personality, on both sides of the aisle. These are serious times, and it just doesn’t look like the electorate is taking its choices very seriously. I don’t say that strictly because this or that guy won in Florida, but because overall it looks as though personalities, endorsements and empty slogans are having more of an effect on the vote than what the candidates actually say and do and what their records in and out of office reveal about them. While conservatism isn’t dead, it’s not in good shape and there are valid reasons to take a sober look and wonder where we go from here.

Wherever we go, despair ought not be an option:

Don’t quit, boys. For God’s sake, don’t ever quit. So long as there is room for hope, so long as victory is a possibility, so long as you have strength for the fight, you owe it to yourself to keep hoping and keep fighting.

Hope and courage must always go hand-in-hand. If you will spread hope and encouragement in this dark hour of disappointment, you will do more for your candidate than you know.

Hope and courage are two things in short supply these days. If you have either one, and especially if you have any amount of both, use them.