McCain adopts insider strategy

Maverick retools for '08 campaign

March 20, 2006|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,SUN REPORTER

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- The audience will sparkle with Hollywood glitz at tonight's re-election fundraiser for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But for the star speaker, Sen. John McCain, it's just one more stop on a long 2008 presidential trail.

For months, McCain has been quietly assembling the pieces of a national campaign: lining up donors, courting his Senate colleagues, reaching out to social conservatives, earning IOUs from other politicians. The outsider of the 2000 Republican campaign is still a maverick, but he is carefully following the insider strategy of the man who beat him.

"George Bush defeated me in the primary because he had the entire Republican establishment behind him, and he ran a good campaign," McCain said in an interview. "He had worked very hard to gain that support."

Now, hard work could pay off for McCain, too. An aura of inevitability appears to be growing around his prospective candidacy, like the one Bush built in the run-up to his nomination, though McCain says he won't make a decision about running until after the midterm elections this November.

`Extraordinary pull'

Early polling matchups suggest that McCain's appeal to independents and Democrats would make him a formidable general-election candidate, which matters a great deal to Republicans eager to hold on to the White House.

David Hill, a Republican pollster in Texas, said he has been surprised lately by McCain's "extraordinary pull" among "movers and shakers, big donors" and others in elite Republican circles. That includes some conservatives who were cool to McCain "but now seem to be quite warm to him."

Republicans, more hierarchical than Democrats when it comes to choosing nominees, have begun deferring to McCain, much as they did to Sen. Bob Dole, who got the nod in 1996.

"`It's his turn' is a powerful force in Republican primary politics," Hill said.

Still, some leading conservatives aren't convinced. They doubt McCain can get many votes from social and religious conservatives, who play an outsized role in Republican nomination fights.

"A strong conservative candidate who unites the right can take him down," Richard Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, wrote not long ago.

McCain started relatively late in the 2000 campaign, received little support from his Senate colleagues and was seriously outspent by Bush. But he has emerged with a significant edge over his likely 2008 rivals, all first-time presidential candidates. For the past 40 years, every nonincumbent who won the Republican nomination, except George W. Bush, had run for president before and lost.

"Because we ran a good race and established kind of a national base, clearly I think I would be in better shape," said McCain.

McCain's emphasis on campaign reform alienated many Republicans last time. But the 2008 debate could work to his advantage by letting him play up his record as a fiscal conservative and his reputation as a Vietnam War hero who, according to opinion polls, is seen as a strong leader.

Because of the Iraq war and the fight against terrorism, "a lot more emphasis is going to be on national security issues. So obviously I would focus more on that," said McCain, sipping from a tall container of coffee in his Senate office.

McCain, who turns 70 this summer, will pass a milestone in May: He'll be older than Ronald Reagan was in 1980 when Reagan became the oldest man to win the presidency -- and Election Day is still 2 1/2 years off.

"I'm older than dirt. I've got more scars than Frankenstein," McCain likes to say, trying to defuse concerns about his age and the surgery he underwent in August 2000 for skin cancer.

The temper question

Another potential vulnerability: nagging questions about his temperament. He tried to deflect them last time by cracking jokes and releasing 1,500 pages of medical and psychological records. Now, he simply denies there's a problem.

"Just because someone says it's there, you would have to provide some corroboration that it was. Because I do not lose my temper. I do not," he said. "Now, do I speak strongly? Do I feel frustrated from time to time? Of course. If I didn't, I don't think I would be doing my job.

"But for someone to say that McCain became just angry and yelled or even raised my voice or -- it's just not true. It's simply not true. And so these rumors continue to circulate about -- quote -- temper. They're going to have to find some concrete examples of it, and they aren't there."

He has worked hard to mend fences with Bush. After voting against the president's 2001 tax cut and authoring a campaign finance overhaul that Bush reluctantly signed into law, McCain campaigned hard for Bush's re-election.

More recently, he signed up Bush's media consultant, Mark McKinnon, as an adviser. He's getting to know key figures in Bush's deep-pocketed contribution network, leading at least one of his strategists to predict that McCain will be the best-funded 2008 Republican.

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