McCain's conservatism with a new attitude discomfits Republicans

His reform ideas attract independents, not GOP

February 27, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When a maverick senator named Barry Goldwater came galloping out of the Arizona desert 40 years ago, the modern conservative movement was born.

Now, the man who holds his Senate seat, John McCain, is trying to shoot some of the movement's most cherished notions out of the saddle, including the issue that has come to define the modern Republican Party: cutting taxes.

The McCain campaign "does mark the end, or at least a break with, the conservative movement as it's developed," says William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.

Polls indicate that McCain's success in the Republican nomination contest is due more to his personality, character and inspiring life story than to the platform of his "McCain majority" movement, which even admirers describe as less than fully formed.

But his struggle against Texas Gov. George W. Bush might ultimately turn on whether McCain can convince enough Republican conservatives that he's one of them.

While he points with pride to his solidly conservative voting record in the House and Senate, those who have worked with and know McCain describe him as a pragmatist, not an ideologue.

And some of his statements during the campaign, like expressing concern about closing "the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in America," have sounded suspiciously liberal to some conservative ears.

On the party's signature issue since the days of Ronald Reagan -- tax cuts -- McCain has taken a seemingly heretical position: He argues that paying down the national debt and shoring up Social Security and Medicare are more important than giving everyone a tax cut.

Unlike Bush, who would reserve roughly one-third of his tax cut for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, McCain would give that group almost nothing.

"I don't think Bill Gates needs a tax cut," he has said.

That sort of language could complicate McCain's ability to attract Republican votes, especially as the nomination race turns increasingly to states where primary voting is restricted to Republicans.

McCain's victories have come largely with the help of independents and, in last week's Michigan upset, Democrats. Bush is running ahead of McCain among those who identify themselves as Republicans, in some cases by margins of more than 2 to 1.

"Republicans cannot win without being the tax-cutting party," maintains Stephen Moore, director of fiscal policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.

By running away from the tax-cut agenda, he adds, "politically, you're alienating one-third of the Republican voters."

McCain's gamble is that he can expand the party by appealing to those who have been turned off by politics-as-usual -- the same type of voters who supported Ross Perot in 1992 and Jesse Ventura in Minnesota in 1998.

But his reform agenda -- overhauling the campaign finance system, slashing "corporate welfare" and pork-barrel spending -- has also angered many Republicans in Congress and the party establishment and made at least some conservative voters hesitate to support him.

"He doesn't look like a traditional Republican, and the centerpiece of that distrust is campaign finance reform," said William Connelly, a political scientist at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

McCain's plan, which would impose strict new limits on who can donate to political campaigns, conflicts with underlying notions of freedom that are at the root of Republican ideology, Connelly said.

Up to now, McCain has managed to overcome Republican resistance to his candidacy because of his ability to lure non-Republicans into GOP primaries.

This week's Republican presidential tests -- in Virginia, Washington state and North Dakota -- are also open to all voters, including Democrats and independents.

No competing primaries

As in Michigan, there will be no competing Democratic primaries on Tuesday, except for a nonbinding "beauty contest" in Washington state, where former Sen. Bill Bradley is making a push against Vice President Al Gore.

After that, however, the campaign heads into the big round of primaries and caucuses March 7 in 13 states, including Maryland (where independents can vote in the Republican primary).

Over the next few weeks, when a majority of the convention delegates will be chosen, about half will be in contests that are closed to non-Republicans, including the big delegate prizes of California, New York and Florida.

`Proud Reagan Republican'

In an attempt to get conservatives to take a second look at his candidacy, McCain is calling himself "a proud Reagan Republican."

His television ads feature footage of McCain and Reagan. And his supporters have been talking up the possibility (apparently a remote one) that Nancy Reagan might endorse him before next week's important California primary.

McCain's 18-year congressional career offers ample evidence that, by and large, he voted the conservative party line.

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