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— John McCain fended off discussion of specific potential running mates but made clear he sees no requirement to pick someone from a different region.

"I don't want to in any way sidestep the candidacy of Governor Huckabee," McCain said told reporters here before flying off to Wichita, Kan., and Seattle. "He's in this race, and for me to dismiss him would be inappropriate and unrealistic."

Nevertheless, the Arizona senator did offer his view that regionally balanced tickets may be a thing of the past. Since McCain's chief rival Mitt Romney suspended his campaign Thursday, some party figures and commentators have suggested McCain might select Mike Huckabee as a vice presidential nominee to benefit from the Arkansas governor's proven appeal in the South, where McCain has less support.

"From a practical standpoint, I think former President Clinton and Vice President Gore showed us you don't have to be regionally different," McCain said. "I think America is such that, quote, regional differences don't play the role that maybe they did in earlier times." Clinton, who was Arkansas governor, and Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee made the first national ticket entirely from the South.

"The fundamental principle behind any selection of a running mate would be whether that person is fully prepared to take over and shares your values, your principles, your philosophy and your priorities," McCain said.

A day after a conciliatory speech to conservative activists, many of whom distrust him, McCain acknowledged to reporters, "I know that we have a lot of work to do to unite the party."

He earned the backing late Friday of one prominent conservative, one-time rival and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.

"Through his character and determination, John McCain has effectively beaten the field in the primary. It is time for Republicans to acknowledge the fact that, in Senator McCain we have a man who can win in November at a time that odds will be against us," Thompson said in a statement.

He held a morning round-table discussion on national security in the Navy town of Norfolk, Va., and the one-time Vietnam prisoner of war stuck to military issues, which have helped him make inroads with his conservative critics.

McCain said it shouldn't be difficult to expand the U.S. military despite a shortfall in recruitment.

"The military is much smaller than it was at the time of the first Gulf War, and we are a country of 300 million people, so to somehow think we can't recruit and retain an all-volunteer force flies in the face of history," McCain said.

Asked at a news conference afterward about Democratic contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, McCain said: "They want to set a date for withdrawal from Iraq that I believe would have catastrophic consequences."

"I believe al-Qaida would trumpet to the world they defeated the United States of America, and I believe, therefore, they would try to follow us home. There would be catastrophic consequences in the region, and we would be back."

"That is going to be, I think, a major issue in this campaign."

Later in Wichita, Kan., he called the difference on these issues "as stark a difference as any contest we've ever had, and I am proud to carry the banner of a conservative Republican, with a record of conservative thought and voting into this election in November."

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