McCain courts conservative base

Independent image at risk in likely '08 bid


KEENE, N.H. -- Sen. John McCain began his week by embracing the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the conservative religious leader he once denounced as polarizing. He ended it by joining Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal Massachusetts senator, in a fight for an immigration bill opposed by many conservatives.

McCain has long sought to present himself as a singular sort of American politician - straight-talking, iconoclastic and hard to quantify.

But as he began a campaign-style trip here that will take him through Florida, Ohio and Iowa, he faced an extraordinarily complex political challenge as he sought to appeal to an unusually diverse audience and cement his early standing in the emerging Republican presidential field.

McCain's alliance with Kennedy came as he has embarked on a campaign to repair strains with conservatives and a once-wary Bush White House. He is portraying himself as a lifelong conservative and a steadfast supporter of President Bush, once a political rival, courting his senior staff members and fundraisers.

He has endorsed Bush tax cuts he once criticized as fiscally ruinous, and agreed to appear at a commencement at Liberty University, headed by Falwell, whom McCain once called an agent "of intolerance."

But a strategy designed to muscle him through the 2008 Republican primaries - should he run, which aides says is likely but not definite - risks diluting the independent image that has been central to his political appeal. Already, McCain is facing stiff questions from supporters and critics about how far he will go to win support from conservative leaders who have long been wary of him.

"You're killing me here," Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, said after introducing McCain as one of his favorite guests last week. "You're not freaking out on us - are you going into crazy-base world?"

After the reference to his appeal to the party's conservative base, a laughing McCain responded, "I'm afraid so."

In an interview at his Senate office, where he had urged a reporter to watch the Stewart interview on an office computer, McCain said that he had not changed any position for political reasons, and that he was more conservative than his occasional high-profile breaks with the right might lead casual observers to believe.

But unbidden, he acknowledged the danger of the perception that he has become politically expedient. McCain said there was "much increased sensitivity for me not to display traces of hypocrisy" because of the way he had defined himself.

"I would argue that I have not changed any of my positions, and if I did really change my positions on issues, that I would lose what is probably one of the greatest attractions that people have for me, and that is as a person who stands up for what he believes in," McCain said, appearing subdued during a break from the debate on his immigration bill. "But, you know, I understand why some people would say, `Wow!' when they hear that I'm speaking at Liberty University."

"I've always been a conservative," he said.

"I think my voting record clearly indicates that on economic issues, national security issues, social issues - I'm pro-life - so I think I could make an argument I've had a pretty clear 20-some-year record basically being conservative."

McCain's associates said it would be nearly impossible to win the nomination without quelling concern among conservatives who were, even before the immigration battle, concerned by his advocacy of campaign finance laws, a global warming treaty and gun control.

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