McCain draws ire of conservatives

Debate over interrogation highlights divisions

September 19, 2006|By Janet Hook and Richard Simon | Janet Hook and Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Conservative activists are heaping criticism on Sen. John McCain for fighting President Bush over proposed rules for the interrogation of terrorism suspects, a spat that has reopened long-standing divisions between the maverick Republican lawmaker and his party's establishment.

The attack from the right, which escalated over the weekend, could undercut McCain's concerted effort, in anticipation of a 2008 presidential bid, to woo Bush backers and other party regulars who have been skeptical of his conservative credentials.

"This very definitely is going to put a chilling affect on the tremendous strides he has made in the conservative evangelical community," said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, one of several conservative activists who have stepped out in support of Bush's position in the debate on interrogation techniques.

The administration took a possible step toward breaking the deadlock yesterday, when it sent a new proposal to Capitol Hill. Details were not immediately available and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a judge in the Air Force Reserve who is a key McCain ally in the fight, was noncommittal in responding to it.

"The parties continue to share ideas with each other," Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said in a statement.

Referring to the back and forth, Graham told reporters, "Have y'all ever bought a car? This is how you buy a car."

Even as conservative leaders berate McCain for refusing to yield to Bush, the high-profile battle could burnish the Arizonan's credentials among admirers who have been growing concerned about his moves to court the GOP establishment.

His aides say McCain's position in the interrogation dispute is entirely a matter of conscience - not calculation - but they still see a political upside to it.

"When he does the right thing and he knows it, that works out well for him," said John Weaver, a top political adviser to McCain. "He's going to see this through."

Weaver also said he was "optimistic" that the administration ultimately would make concessions satisfactory to McCain. "I don't think they want to have a floor vote that they will lose," said Weaver, who estimated that at least 55 of the Senate's 100 members support the McCain position.

The crosscurrents swirling around McCain underscore the complexity of his political position as the perceived front-runner in a potentially crowded field of GOP presidential candidates. As the primary season approaches, he is expected to face increasing tension between what it takes to please the GOP activists who play a big role in choosing the party's nominee and cultivating the independent streak that could give him strong appeal to independents in a general election.

As McCain's profile in the interrogation debate has grown in prominence, other potential GOP presidential candidates have weighed in.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, widely seen as a leading competitor for McCain's centrist appeal, has forcefully endorsed Bush's position.

"I am four-square behind President Bush," Romney said in an interview. "Senator McCain's position is mistaken on this issue."

Also in the president's corner is Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who has been courting the religious right.

Sen. George Allen of Virginia, another conservative Republican favorite, dodged the question Sunday.

"I'm going to make a determination once I get some more facts," Allen said on NBC's Meet the Press.

At issue is a key section of the Geneva Conventions, which set international standards for the treatment of wartime prisoners. Known as Common Article 3, the section bans "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."

Bush says this language is vague, leaving intelligence agents in doubt about whether some of the harsher interrogation tactics they have employed to obtain vital information are legal. He has asked Congress to clarify the language.

But McCain and his allies say Congress should not unilaterally set a definition, or else other nations with less respect for human rights might do the same - to the detriment of U.S. personnel in captivity.

Janet Hook and Richard Simon write for the Los Angeles Times.

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