McCain gaining on bandwagon

Bush's Senate support might not be as solid as Texan once thought

Campaign 2000

February 14, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Nearly two years ago, Maine Republican Olympia J. Snowe was approached by a Senate colleague with a blunt message and a simple request: George W. Bush was destined to win the Republican nomination for the White House, and the Texas governor wanted her endorsement.

Snowe's ties to Bush's rival, John McCain, were deep. Her husband, John R. McKernan Jr., had entered the House of Representatives in 1982 with the Arizona senator, and their families had become friends. She was McCain's close ally on the Senate Commerce Committee. But, Snowe said, she jumped on the Bush bandwagon without much thought, figuring McCain's White House bid was going nowhere.

Of the 55 Republicans in the Senate, 44 have thrown in with Bush.

Now, though, the Bush wall of senatorial support has given rise to a pointed question often raised by the governor's backers: Why do so many of the politicians who serve with McCain support his opponent?

The answer may be less portentous than the question, and it hints that Bush's support may be weaker than first imagined.

A few celebrated cases appear to be motivated by genuine animus toward McCain. But most senators simply latched onto Bush because at the time, more than a year ago, they were sure he would be their best shot at reclaiming the White House.

"This became an issue of rallying around a candidate who at the outset seemed like he could unify the party," Snowe said. "It had nothing to do with John. Most Republicans felt the same way -- rally behind a winning candidate."

Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, one of McCain's four senatorial supporters, agreed.

"It was just a natural tendency," he said. "It looked like [Bush] had an insurmountable lead. He was going to be the man and they wanted to back a winner."

To be sure, some senators personally dislike McCain.

"John engenders strong emotions," said Sen. Jon Kyl, a fellow Arizonan and another McCainbacker. "You love him or you don't."

But McCain supporters and Senate aides say only about a half-dozen GOP senators -- including Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell and Utah's Orrin G. Hatch -- seem to truly despise their Arizona colleague.

In some cases, such as Lott's, the news media's often lavish attention to McCain has become a source of contention, as has McCain's propensity to flout the party leadership. Those issues came into focus when McCain bucked the party line on campaign finance, tobacco legislation and the right of patients to sue their managed care insurers.

Lott has also been annoyed by McCain's denunciations of a helicopter carrier under construction in the majority leader's home state, a vessel that McCain insists the Navy never requested. The carrier has become example No. 1 in McCain's crusade against what he calls military pork.

In the case of some senators, such as McConnell, the hostility stems from legislative differences over campaign finance laws and tobacco that have taken on the fervor of religious wars.

It is not only Lott who has clashed with McCain over home-state projects. Georgia Republican Paul Coverdell, Bush's point man in the Senate, said a close relationship with the Bush family explains his active opposition to McCain, but he also noted that McCain rails daily against funding for C-130 troop transport planes built in Coverdell's home state.

"That's big time in Georgia," said Coverdell, who last week brought three senators to South Carolina on Bush's behalf and is heading home this week to campaign for him in anticipation of Georgia's primary March 7.

In some cases, McCain's rants against pork-barrel spending have coincided with his charge that campaign cash has tainted his colleagues, producing an incendiary mix. Last year, McCain said that wealthy Republican campaign donors in Utah helped win $2 million to fund sewer repairs that would help Salt Lake City prepare for the Winter Olympics. That infuriated Utah Sen. Robert F. Bennett, who took to the Senate floor to accuse McCain of calling him corrupt.

Indeed, it is what some senators see as McCain's sometimes sarcastic and self-righteous attitude that rankles most, his foes say. And his tirades against what he calls the corrosive effects of big money in politics are taken by some senators as a personal attack on their integrity.

"He's as much of an insider in Washington as anybody, more so than most," fumed Hatch, who left the presidential race last month and endorsed Bush.

No lasting antipathy

Still, most Republicans say their experiences with McCain's temper or political crusades have not left any lasting antipathy. Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar noted that another White House hopeful, New Hampshire Sen. Robert C. Smith, did far worse, bolting the Republican Party, and denouncing his colleagues on the Senate floor, only to return to the party fold months later after dropping his presidential bid. He was rewarded with the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

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