Contrary to rumors spawned by a show-opening satire, Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich haven’t learned to speak RINO overnight. They didn’t come out for “modernizing” the party or any of that. They also didn’t come out for Mitt Romney, though they both pretty much did come out against John McCain, at length and over more than one issue. Gingrich in particular hammers away at McCain for being a potential president who just won’t pay any attention at all to conservative ideals.

Rep. Tom Tancredo was on Fox earlier today and made similar points against McCain, though only on immigration. I didn’t catch every word, but from what I heard Tanc sounded like he wouldn’t support McCain as the GOP’s nominee if it comes to that. He’s not the only one.

The question before us, is, is it too late? McCain won South Carolina largely because Fred was still in the race. If Newt’s numbers are right, he won Florida largely because Huckabee is still in the race. McCain has managed the equivalent of an inside straight during the primaries, becoming the front-runner without actually winning the base over to him. He has what amounts to an agent of influence for a foreign government — whoops, make that two agents of influence for a foreign government — working on his campaign. His signature legislation still causes growls among conservatives. Yet McCain is the likely nominee of the conservative party.

Not if Mitt Romney has anything to say about it. Romney, more than any other candidate, sought to make himself acceptable to conservatives over the past couple of years. McCain skipped CPAC; Romney not only spoke at CPAC but at National Review’s 50th anniversary party. Rudy forgot to deal with social conservatives; Romney became one. You can knock him for that and many have, but the fact is Romney looked at the GOP base not as a hostile world but a constituency that he would need. He took a businessman’s approach to a political problem.

Tonight’s debate is make or break. There will be four people on that stage, which is two more than ought to be there: Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee should be locked in the green room, but they won’t be. It will be crowded. Huck won’t go after McCain. Paul will be Paul. Rudy won’t be around to chuckle in the wings. Fred will be refreshing comments over at Ace’s open thread. It will be up to Mitt to take off the gloves and score a real punch directly on McCain’s weak spots.

McCain has several legendarily spacious soft spots. Border security. Economics. Free speech. These are core issues. Take your pick. Mitt can’t stick to stump speech points. He will have to score a direct hit with information that’s new to most viewers in a way that leaves a mark, but not in a mean way lest he get tagged as the bad guy. Romney could even bring up the seething discontent that’s surfaced after Florida as an argument against McCain’s supposed electability. How electable is a guy who has so much trouble with the party’s base? But whichever punches Romney chooses to throw, has to be careful.

It can be done. It won’t be easy. I find myself saying that often these days.