McCain supports Bush with reasoned words about Kerry

Arizona senator is cast in role of mediator as campaign heats up early

Election 2004

March 19, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Sen. John McCain, the maverick Republican who challenged President Bush in 2000, has found his own unique way of campaigning for his one-time rival.

It includes publicly defending John Kerry.

In recent weeks, McCain has seemed to drift away from his task as a partisan working for Bush's re-election. Instead, he has cast himself as an unofficial mediator in the no-holds-barred fight between Bush and Kerry.

Yesterday, in a nationally televised interview, the Arizona senator sided with Kerry against charges trumpeted in Bush's new TV ads that the Massachusetts senator has a dismal voting record on military issues.

"No, I do not believe he is, quote, `weak on defense,'" McCain told NBC, in response to a question about Kerry. "I don't agree with him on some issues, clearly, but I decry this negativism that's going on on both sides."

McCain, who is co-chairing Bush's re-election campaign in Arizona, did not offer any positive words about the president during the interview.

Last week, McCain, 67, briefly flirted with the far-fetched idea of becoming Kerry's running-mate, noting that the two are close friends.

Later, he joined just three other Republicans in a budget vote that defied Bush and Republican leaders, making it harder for them to achieve the centerpiece of their agenda: more tax cuts.

And days before that, he had criticized the president in another TV interview for using emotionally charged images of the aftermath of Sept. 11 in his first campaign ads.

Raising the tone

McCain's aides describe the senator's unorthodox campaign tactics as his way of trying to elevate the tone of an increasingly rancorous presidential race. His support for Bush is as solid as ever, they say, but he won't back the president's attacks on a close friend and colleague.

"Senator McCain will continue to affirmatively campaign for President Bush," said Andrea Jones, a spokeswoman. "He will not attack his friend John Kerry."

The Bush campaign brushed aside McCain's break with its message and instead seized on the Arizona senator's assertion, in yesterday's interview, that Kerry "is responsible for his voting record ... and he'll have to explain it."

"As John McCain indicated, the record is appropriate to discuss, and the record clearly suggests that John Kerry is weak on national defense," said a Bush spokesman, Kevin Madden.

Touch of revenge?

Some observers, mostly Democrats, say they believe that McCain's recent statements are his way of taking revenge against Bush, his rival in a sometimes nasty Republican primary battle four years ago.

Whatever the cause, some Democrats, cheered by McCain's high-profile breaks with the Bush fold, are claiming the conservative Republican as a kindred spirit.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the House Democratic whip, invoked McCain's name yesterday when he assailed Bush and House Republicans for pushing a budget plan that would limit spending but not tax cuts.

Helping Democrats

"The Senate made a real effort to tackle the record deficits that the Republicans' irresponsible policies have created," Hoyer said, noting that "John McCain and others" had helped.

McCain and three moderate Republican senators - Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, both of Maine - joined Democrats last week in pushing through curbs that would bar any spending increases or tax cuts unless they were offset by equal spending reductions or tax increases.

"Senator McCain represents an intellectually honest Republican who stands up for what Republicans say they stand up for," said Stacey Farnen, Hoyer's spokeswoman. "He's also respected across the country as somebody who speaks his mind, as a straight-shooter."

Swing voter appeal

Indeed, people who have worked for McCain say his unusual approach - while seeming to give comfort to Bush's foe in the presidential battle - might be the best way for the contrarian senator to transform his powerful appeal among swing voters into votes for Bush in November.

McCain, who has differed sharply with the president on such issues as campaign finance and environmental protection, does not fit the mold of a Bush surrogate, willing to take to the airwaves as a mouthpiece for the president's message.

Instead, as one of the only Republicans with substantial popularity among independent voters, McCain actually helps Bush's chances by serving as a voice of moderation in the campaign, reaching out to undecided and swing voters, said Dan Schnur, a California-based Republican consultant who was McCain's communications director during his 2000 bid.

Politics, not sport

"The time will come when John McCain will begin to outline very clearly the differences between the president and John Kerry, particularly on national security matters," Schnur said. "But in the meantime, he doesn't see the benefit of jumping up and down on Kerry's head for sport."

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